Sunday, June 15, 2008

Moscow, 11.10.92: Tired Zakuskies and Lavra Bells

7 A.M. This hotel: I believe they told us it dates from the Stalin era, and yet the rooms look late 19th century. The ceilings must be 20 feet high—or at least 16, with molding around the edges in 2 layers, an inner and outer, and around the chandeliers. And there are chandeliers—not elegant, but chandeliers nonetheless.

The floor’s a type of inlaid wood (not sure if the term parquet applies, as it’s more in herringbone than squares) that hasn’t been cared for in years, if ever. There’s not a suspicion of wax on it, and it’s cracked and splintered and stained from what look like years of rough mopping. Along the alls and in each room, runners of a red carpet with Orientalish design, it, too, shabby and with cigarette butts ground into it. At the hotel desk, I noticed the desk had been built adjacent the wood floor, but on concrete, and not attempt made for the concrete to meet the wood smoothly. There was just a fissure full of rubble.

That’s how so much is here—a mix of past splendor, faded glory, and horrible syzygistic modernity. And I don’t know how to feel about it. I recall Sr. Grace S. saying she spoke to a Polish sister in Paris in Russian, and the nun drew herself up and replied stiffly, Je ne parle pas cette langue des barbares. But isn’t that the conventional charge of the “civilized” about the “uncivilized”—and in this case, of those from the geographic heart of Europe to the outliers, those with Asian taint?

Or is it all due quite simply to the fact that a nation of serfs suddenly come to power cannot help being a nation that lurches awkwardly towards “taste “and comfort, those exclusive birthrights of the bourgeoisie? We Americans are so embarrassed by the fact of class that we don’t want to think this way—we fear the charge of elitism. And yet could this account for much of it, a kind of post-bellum South horror story: Why, I saw Miss Sophronia’s fine china vase in old black Annie’s house and you know what she uses it for? A spittoon! Did you ever in your life? Is the horrid food, the grim functional architecture, the bad service and the just-don’t-quite-work mentality all due to the still-yet-to-be-born grand experiment in government by the people?

Or, to say it otherwise, is this what to us seems playing-at grandeur, sham grandeur, actually a vast improvement on the lives of the serfs of pre-revolutionary times? Ought they to be justifiably proud of their accomplishments?

And we, by contrast, did we ever have government of, for, and by the people? And have things worked for us to the extent that we tacitly privilege a governing elite—originally, white male property owners—and tacitly subjugate all the “inferior” classes, even as we madly trumpet our egalitarianism? In the final analysis, isn’t that what Madisonian federalism was all about—a parasitic implantation into the living body of Jeffersonian democracy of a fictive system of popular government that is in reality a justification for the rule of the many by the few, in the name of “balance”?

5:15 P.M. Just back from a trip to the Lavra of St. Sergei outside Moscow, the spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy, where the relics of St. Sergei are preserved in the monastery he founded.

The day cold, dark, with intermittent snow—typical weather for the time of year, our guide tells us. We drove through interesting countryside, much of it hideously scarred by urbanization and industrialization, the Scylla and Charybdis of modernity. But interspersed between the gouged-out land and concrete-block buildings were little villages and/or dachas clustered together. I’m not sure I can tell one from the other.

I loved them—dark-painted (greens and browns) houses with white gingerbread trim, utterly surrounded by little gardens that seem to be intensively cultivated. They seem just right for this harsh cold landscape—places where humans huddle together and help one another through the winter, and raise as much food as they can in summer.

I imagine I’m far from the first to say it, but what’s striking (and charming) about Russia is how pre-modern and modern life live uneasily side by side. The little villages, and the lives of people in them, cannot have changed fundamentally in centuries.

This gives one the overall impression that the revolution catapulted people into the twentieth century when they were long centuries outside modernity ,that it was bound to struggle to succeed when the vast majority of people were nowhere near modernity at the time of the revolution. Again, far from a profound insight, but it does strike one forcefully that this is the case.

The lavra—what an experience! All I can say to get near the heart of it is that it was as Asian as European. We happened to come on the 6th day of the feast of St. Sergius, so there were crowds galore, processions, bells ringing in a church tower every half hour in an excited tinging way. The opulence of the processions, with green-garbed and bejeweled patriarchs and other clerics; the icons carried about; the press of people smelling as Russians do of stale winter sweat, stinky, heavy tobacco, and garlic sausage—and, not uncommonly, of alcohol: all was absolutely fascinating.

I should back up and say the cluster of church buildings was picture-perfect in the new-fallen snow—blue and gold spires, trees, all with traces of snow. I never got straight what church is which. All are clustered in one monastic setting, and the monks must service them all. There’s also an academy and a seminary, and I did learn one church is for summer use and the other winter. But there’s another just for the bones of St. Sergius (is bones correct? we were told they exhumed him intact) which was jam-packed with faithful, some singing, many talking, all moving this way and that, though there was a line for the reliquary, the main attraction, and our guide took us to the head of it.

When we arrived at the lavra, a professor of German at the academy showed us the museu, which has a wonderful collection of icons, some European Catholic church artifacts, and a room Alexis I, the former patriarch, occupied as a monk, with mementoes of him. It was this same guide who showed us the grounds and churches. We had been supposed to meet with officials of the seminary and hold a discussion with them, but none came—the feast the ostensible reason, though we wondered if another reason was at least partly the explanation, after a curious incident happened.

It was this: Kathy T., a parish religious educator, offered the guide pencils her class had sent, along with greeting letters each pupil had written. He was extremely reluctant to take them, asking if she were Protestant. When she said Catholic, he took them. We wondered if the monks did not want to see us because we have several Protestants among us.

After the monastery, lunch at a restaurant in town—Sergei Rasov or Pasov. The lunch was zakuskies of boiled egg with caviar on top, sliced cold fish, followed by a little salver of chopped mushrooms, and then a potato and chopped beef mixture. There was a roulade for dessert.

I grow weary of the food—tonight here we had sliced garlic sausage as zakusky, with the same egg-and-daviar, then beefsteak again and a few fried potatoes and shreds of red cabbage. The beef if fried, the potatoes are fried, the hash at lunch was fried—all in rather old-tasting grease. The other say they like the food, but this either attests to horrible mid-American taste, or they’re being polite. And it’s invariably served lukewarm.

Breakfast was interesting—a porridge of grits-like stuff, blini filled with something like applesauce, fried cheescakes (tiri? tvori?), eggs, smoked fish, and bowls of coleslaw, beet salad, and tomatoes and peppers. There were also not very good croissants, iced. This is the only time I’ve seen milk served for the coffee and tea. At most meals, it’s served last, plain, and the drink is invariably something like Kool Aid.

Tonight the National Circus, but I’m too tired to write more now.

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