By Lara Cornelius, Staff Writer
I always get this melancholy feeling when I land in Moscow. After spending the night in London, I immediately recognized the feeling that I was no longer in the United States or Europe. This landscape and language unconsciously evoked emotion that tug at my soul as I walked outside of the airport at 5 am into the chilly, crisp morning. I plopped myself into the cigarette-infused cab that would take me into the city. I soon asked the feeble driver to turn up the electronic Russian music he seemed to low-key enjoy this early in the morning. I was feeling excited and eager to be back once again, so this sort of up-beat, melodic soundtrack only seemed to fit the moment as I began to recognize the tall buildings and subtle, neon lights outside of the backseat window, my face so close that my breath was fogging up the glass. It was still dark and remained dark for some time even after we arrived to our apartment on Leninksy Prospect. I recognized the fairy lights outside the Georgian restaurant downstairs, which has the best lulya kebab, and the tiny playground I enjoyed so much as a child. Across the street is ‘Neskuchni Sad,’ which is still my favorite park. I was greeted by my rosy-cheeked grandmother, whose embrace felt like home. As we stepped inside, by far the most familiar sense was the sweet smell of the building as we climbed up the stairs and into the 4 x 4 foot elevator I used to think was so grand.
After we opened the first door to the apartment, we opened the second one and it hit the brass bell above, ringing as it once did during my childhood on Yugazapadnaya. My grandfather would put me into a shoebox and pull me along while we played the game where I imagined I was on a train. “Choo choo! Next stop…little bell!” And he would raise me up while I would ring the tiny bell with such joy and laughter. Right beside the doorway was my favorite painting that was always the second stop of this childhood game I would play. “Next stop..Volchitsa (she wolf)!” I went to the kitchen and indulged in some of my grandmother’s cooking. A folk song played softly on the radio. I took in everything about this moment. The taste, the sound, the smell. I was ready for Russia once again.
The next 8 days I would spend time in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, going on a sort of cultural re-immersion that my grandmother so kindly put together for me. From Woody Allen’s 350 Central Park play in Russian at the MXAT Theater to the first ballet interpretation of Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi Theater, I would soon leave my beautiful country feeling more in awe and homesick than ever before.
Some would say that Moscow is the the heart of Russia while St. Petersburg is the soul. Moscow has all the central authorities and St. Petersburg has many important historical and cultural monuments. Rather than explaining all of the historical and cultural sights that are part of these two beautiful cities I will highlight just some that really took my breath away.
After spending a couple of days in Moscow, on the morning of International Women’s Day, a highly celebrated holiday in Russia, I had the opportunity to attend a fantastic, highly energetic alumni panel at CBSD Thunderbird Russia. I was so happy to have attended this discussion as all of the speakers were extremely knowledgable about the Russian business climate and they were all a pleasure to learn from and listen to.
Soon after this event, I met my grandmother at home and we took the four-hour train ride to St. Petersburg that has become a quite convenient and economical route when traveling between the two. As soon as we arrived to the city, we dropped off our luggage at our AirBnb and I taught my grandmother how to order an Uber for the first time. I think it would be fair to say this may have been one of my better contributions during this trip–Ubers are incredibly inexpensive and much more reliable compared to cabs in Russia!
We arrived at the Marinksy Theater and spent our evening watching the ballet Dragocenosti (Treasures). This theater was exquisitely beautiful – too simple a phrase to describe any Russian theater such as this one of the Bolshoi. The magnificent decor and golden chandeliers create a luscious environment of royalty rooted in rich, Russian history. In June of 1783, Empress Catherine II declared that “Russian Theater should not be merely for comedies and tragedies, but also for operas.” This date marks the starting point in this history of Marinksy Opera Company. The current building was open in 1860 and is globally re-known for its ballet and orchestra.
The next morning we woke up and crossed the bridge over the Moika river, to what is known as St. Petersburg’s greatest attraction, The Hermitage Museum. To begin my cultural expedition of the city, we began exploring this breath-taking palace, now museum, founded by Catherine the Great in 1754. It is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, with over three million items on display. It is clear that several parts of the complex, comprised of six historic buildings, were once the former residence of Russian emperors. The Hermitage was not just a home for the royal family, but today it is also an important symbol to the Imperial Russian State.
What I found most interesting about the current exhibition was the Museum Director’s decision to incorporate Jan Fabre, a very forward-thinking contemporary Belgian artist, among what is the Hermitage’s classic art collection. Fabre is an artist that uses his art to speculate in a loud manner about life and death, physical and social transformations, and about the cruel and intelligent imagination that is present in both humans and animals. My grandmother called it a sort of “social experiment.” This sort of exhibition could be very beneficial for the public and bring in a fresh, new perspective as the classic and contemporary coexist in this magnificent space. There is still significant push back, however, from some, such as the Patriarchy of the Church, that do not agree with the Director’s decision.
One other visit that left me speechless was our time spent at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This Russian-style church was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. A group of revolutionaries threw a bomb at his royal carriage and it is said that the bomb blew off only his legs, but by the time the carriage returned to the palace the Emperor had already lost too much blood. The decision was made to build a church on the exact spot where the Emperor was mortally wounded, and the construction took place between 1883 and 1907. The marvelous interior of the church is decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics, designed and created by the most prominent Russian artists that time period. You have to see it for yourself to understand how time-consuming this work must have been and how extraordinary the entirety of it is. There are over 7,000 square meters of beautiful mosaics. It is one of the most grand and colorful churches I have ever been inside of. Not to mention, the exterior is gorgeous beyond belief.
The most mystical part of the Church’s story has to do with a highly-explosive bomb that was discovered in 1961 in the central cupola of the Church. It was a Nazi bomb that hit the church during WWII that for some reason did not blow up. As my grandmother explained to me, this is another reason that makes this Church so special and sacred. No one understands how this happened. It was inside for eighteen years, waiting,before it was discovered. It was carefully extracted and destroyed.
This is one of many stories about the historical sites and monuments of St. Petersburg that support its claim as “The City of Secrets.” I could feel the mysticism and Russian culture in every corner, in every detail and the people of “Peter,” as locals call it, are very proud of that.
After a couple of days of exploring the soul of our country we took the train back to the heart of Russia, our home, Moscow. This time Larisa ordered the Uber on her own, and I took a small joy in seeing her more relaxed by this system and in being able to be useful after everything I was learning and absorbing on this exciting trip. We returned home to my cheerful grandfather, happy to see us, after spending the last several days immersed in writing his new book. The consistent desire to learn and contribute to the world of academia of both of my grandparents never ceases to inspire and amaze me. I believe this hard-working drive and true knowledge of the arts and literature is specific to the Russian culture in particular.
I had one final night in Moscow left before returning to the States, and I definitely went out with a bang. We went to the Bolshoi theater on Saturday to see the first ballet interpretation of Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s classic Eugene Onegin. The Bolshoi, the Russian word for “grand,” grew most in importance during the Soviet era, after the Revolution of 1917, when the center of power shifted from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. The theater is known around the world for its imperial decor and high level of ballet and opera. The ballet itself was striking: from the costumes, to the level of skill of the dancers, to the stage, to the emotional, majestic beauty of the Bolshoi orchestra playing a compilation of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. We left the theater smiling and dancing light on our feet as we passed the Kremlin, right across from the theater, as a bright moon peeked out from dark clouds.
The next morning was a sunny Sunday in Moscow when I tightly hugged my grandparents goodbye after this unforgettable journey in a country that now seems a world away (in this 90 degree heat here in Arizona). I remember sitting at the terminal this past Sunday trying to breathe it all in one last time, feeling that I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I not only discovered so much about these cities, but I had just begun to learn so much about my family’s story and our roots as well. I realized that the journey from the heart to the soul was not just external, exploring these two cities, but internal, stirring inside of me, as well. In that moment, I promised myself that I would come back very soon to embrace the many personal and professional discoveries in my life that have yet to be uncovered there.
All photos courtesy of Lara Cornelius.