11 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 11 August - Red Square and Captain Beatle

We arrive in to town and our first stop is certain: the iconic and stunning Red Square.

Krásnaya plóshchad (Кра́сная пло́щадь). It is beautiful. No, literally. The name Red Square derives neither from the colour of the bricks around it (which, in fact, were whitewashed at certain points in history) nor from the link between the color red and communism (an irony which goes not at all unnoticed).

Rather, the name came about because the Russian word красная (krasnaya) can mean either "red" or "beautiful" (the latter being archaic). This word, with the meaning "beautiful", was originally applied to Saint Basil's Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square. It is believed that the square acquired its current name (replacing the older and slightly less glamorous Pozhar, or "burnt-out place") in the 17th century.

Red Square is the most famous city square in Moscow, and arguably one of the most famous places in the world. The square separates the Kremlin (the former royal citadel and currently the official residence of the Russian President) from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitai-gorod.

As major streets of Moscow radiate from here in all directions, being promoted to major highways outside the city, Red Square is often considered the central square of Moscow and, in many ways, of all Russia.

During the Soviet era, Red Square maintained its significance, becoming the symbolic and literal focal point for the new state. Besides being the official address of the Soviet government (the government was moved to Moscow from St. Petersburg after the Revolution for militaristic, as well as symbolic "shifting of paradigm" reasons), it was also renowned as a showcase for military parades. Kazan Cathedral and Iverskaya Chapel with the Resurrection Gates were demolished to make room for heavy military vehicles driving through the square (both were later rebuilt after the fall of the Soviet Union).

There were plans to demolish Moscow's most recognized building, Saint Basil's Cathedral, as well. The legend is that Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin's associate and director of the Moscow reconstruction plan, prepared a special model of Red Square, in which the cathedral could be removed, and brought it to Stalin to show how the cathedral was an obstacle for parades and traffic. But when he jerked the cathedral out of the square, Stalin objected with his famous quote: "Lazar! Put it back!"

The buildings surrounding the Square are all significant in some respect. Lenin's Mausoleum, for example, contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Nearby to the south is the elaborate brightly-domed Saint Basil's Cathedral and the palaces and cathedrals of the Kremlin.

St. Basil's rises from Red Square in an irresistible profusion of colors and shapes. Its montage of domes, cupolas, arches, towers, and spires, each bearing a distinctive pattern and hue, have fascinated the eyes of visitors since its construction in the 1550s.

On the eastern side of the square is the GUM department store, and next to it the restored Kazan Cathedral. The northern side is occupied by the State Historical Museum, whose outlines echo those of Kremlin towers. The Iberian Gate and Chapel have been rebuilt to the northwest.

Paul McCartney's performance there was a historic moment for many, including Vadim, as The Beatles were banned in the Soviet Union, preventing any live performances there of any of The Beatles; the Soviet Union also banned the sales of Beatles records, and this was the first time that a Beatle performed in Russia. Vadim was there.

"You are a bit of a superhero," I said, smiling.
"What is that word?" he asked, curiously.
"Oh," I fumble, "um, a superhero is really a fictional character with special powers. Like Superman or Batman or..." I know who he will like, and punch it with a mischievious grin, "Captain America."
He grins from ear to ear, his arms go up in the air and performs an involuntary little hop and hushed and quickly cries "I would like to be a superhero," before reserving himself once again realizing he is supposed to treat Red Square with reverence and sobriety. "I wish to be a Captain Something. I am after all, a Captain in the Army, it is because I am a medical doctor you see. All medical doctors must serve as Captains, it is the rule."
"Captain Vadim?"
"That is boring."
"Captain... Moscow?"
"Alexandra, please."
"Captain BEATLE."
He pauses and his eyes grow wide like a very young and very excited child.
"I AM CAPTAIN BEATLE..." he whispers... and in a flash, he IS. He places his arms behind his back and requests this photograph to capture the moment. "I AM THE WALRUS!!" he cries.

It is the cry of Captain Beatle.

* * *

"What about you Alexandra?" he asked as we made our way to the American car.
"What about me?"
"Are you a superhero too?"
"I don't know," I replied, "do you think so?"
"Oh yes," he nodded pensively,  "I do."
"Well, hm... I am not a Beatle..." I think for a moment.

I recall R's daughter. When I first met her 4 years ago we instantly bonded over The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I read a section to her about Owl and from that moment on she thought that my name was not Al but Owl and it stuck. When I call R, OWL SILBER comes up. And somehow everything associated with the owl has also stuck with me. I adore them and identify with them... all because of a little girl's "mistake." (Or was it?) Children are wise. Like owls.

"I like owls," I tell him
"Hm..." he thinks. He likes this. "The Night Owl?"

I love it.

"I love it," I tell him, "perhaps it should be in Russian?"
"Yes! Oh yes you have so much Russia in you Alexandra and here you are, it must be it must."
"Kak skazat' The Night Owl po-russki*?"
"Nachnaya Sava**."
"Oh my god I love it."
"It is very good."
"Ye lyublyu ta.^"
"Yes. Nachnaya Sava and Captain Beatle. It is good. The world is better off now."
"Hooo!" I cry, for I am Nachnaya Sava.
"And I... I am the walrus..."

That was the state of matters that afternoon.

We drove home exhausted, delighted. Hours of quiescent observation passed from the window of the American car; the world beyond the window appeared friendly, conversant, almost commonplace. 

And the setting Moscow sun was glowing on this irresistible man.

*How do you say The Night Owl in Russian?

**Ночная Сова = The Night Owl

^я люблю это = I love it

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