Happy Birthday Moscow

Sunday, September 8, 2013

I actually did proper bloggy things this weekend!  In fact, it was a bit of a two-for-one deal. A colleague at work recommended the Contemporary History Museum a few weeks ago, and it seemed like the perfect destination given that the weather this week has been positively sodden, meaning that a big indoor museum sounded like just the ticket. Also, the museum recommendation came with the report that the place was home to a truly excellent telephone, so how could I not go? (Yes, telephone.  Look, three different people waxed rhapsodic about this phone, so it seemed like the kind of thing that should be seen.)

However, by the time I got out of the hotel on Saturday morning and then escaped the mobile phone shop where I tried (unsuccessfully, of course) to top up the data plan on my iPad, the weather had turned quite pleasant.  When I emerged from Tverskaya Metro to head for the museum I was greeted by dry skies, which made me less inclined to dive into a dusty museum.  Also it was clear that something interesting was afoot, because the sidewalks were all barricaded off from the street.  Of course!  Saturday was Moscow City Day, the annual celebration of Moscow's birthday.  This year the city turns a spritely 866, and in celebration they'd obviously blocked off the street for a parade.  This conclusion was bolstered by the proliferation of marching bands milling around on the street obviously waiting to get started.

Tverskaya Street desserted... eerie!

I asked around (in Russian, even) and determined that the parade was going to start in only half an hour so it seemed downright silly to miss it, especially given that the sidewalks were almost deserted so a prime parade-watching spot could be had easily.  I waited around until things got underway, which they did almost exactly on time (a bit of a surprise).  The parade seemed to be an international showcase of marching bands, as evidenced by the display of flags at the front.  In fact it turned out to be nothing but marching bands, so I'm guessing maybe it was some kind of competition, but really I have no idea.  This is one of the sometimes fun, sometimes annoying things about venturing out into a foreign city.  Stuff happens around you and you often have only the vaguest notion of what's going on. It's best just to go with it.

The Russians started things off, naturally.  Then I watched the Finns go by, and then the Austrians.  But the the highlight was undoubtedly the arrival of the UK contingent, resplendent in kilts and audible from a mile away.  The bagpipes had arrived!

Kilts! Bagpipes! Moscow clearly needs more of this.

Annoyingly, it seemed that the organisers had a rather imprecise grasp of the concept of a "parade" because the bands kept stopping for long periods, which really killed the mood.  And then there was the Chinese delegation, which was inexplicably made up of a group of men with absolutely no musical instruments at all who simply marched along carrying big sticks.  What?

The Chinese.  Noticeably lacking in bagpipes.

Nonetheless, the pipers got my blood going and I was feeling like if it was a competition then the Brits had things in the bag.  That is, until I came upon the troops from the United Arab Emirates who not only had bagpipes, but also trombones and saxophones and all manner of drums including something that looked sort of like marching bongos.  It was deliciously weird. I mean first of all, UAE? They're not exactly known for their marching band culture are they? And then the instrumentation... Fantastic.

The UAE marching band.

When I finally tore myself away from the mesmerising combination of bagpipes and bongos and made it to the museum, I was a bit choked up to be charged for two tickets so that I could take photos. Apparently the camera needs its own ticket. (And why was I charged 250 roubles for each ticket when my colleagues had paid about 150 per person?  Honestly, the things I do for this blog...) Then again, there was the promise of the fantastic phone ahead, so I carried on.

The museum is housed in a huge pinkish building on one of Moscow's main roads. Formerly the home of an aristocratic Russian family, then the headquarters of the English Club, the building is quite lovely by itself.  The exhibits trace Russian history from about the start of the 20th century through to Perestroika.  All of the commentary on the exhibits is in Russian, but most rooms offered a short page of English to describe the contents of the room, so I wasn't completely lost.

The English Club library room.  Not bad.

I found the beginning a bit dry, but as the subject matter turned to the Revolution, WWII and beyond, things got more interesting.  Interesting enough that I made the mistake of leaning slightly too far into a replica display of an office for the Supreme Worker's Industrial Fabrication Collective (or something like that) and tripped a motion sensor that sounded a very very loud alarm.  Oddly, none of the many security guards in the place paid the slightest notice, and later on when I had moved further into the museum I heard the same alarm sound again, so obviously they just ignore it now.  (Marginally related aside: The office and the hotel both have metal detectors at the doors and every time anyone goes through, they buzz.  Every time.  And I've never seen anyone pay the slightest notice.)

The office display.

But back to the museum.  Naturally there was a generous helping of great propagandist stuff, and I took a lot of photos so that I could get my 250 руб worth. (All photos, including ones of the parade, are over at Flickr in a set called "Moscow City Day", including bagpiping video!)

For instance, there's this great replica of the famous statue of "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman".

And what's the point of being a brutal dictator if you can't have your face on a three foot high ceramic vase?

Or a nice Avant Garde commemorative plate.  And now that I look a bit closer at that, err, banner... tea towel... tapestry... whatever it is... see the bottom left corner? I'll be you dollars to blini that hole used to have Stalin's face in it.

There was a good room about the Space Race.

And I think this was my favourite exhibit.

By the time I got all the way through Perestroika I was getting a bit peckish and thinking it was time to head for the nearest café.  That's when I rounded the corner expecting to find more displays or, ideally, the stairs back down to street level.  Instead I was confronted with a darkened hallway and a plastic folding chair unceremoniously blocking the way.  The handwritten sign on the chair said, "Sorry, there is no exit". Of course.

Luckily, I didn't mind having to make my way backwards thorough history to find the way out because on my first pass through I'd managed to completely miss the World's Coolest Phone. It was smaller than I was expecting, but still quite excellent.

The promised phone.  The receiver is a hammer and the cradle is a sickle!

On my way out I also cruised through a display of Soviet propaganda posters and a truly bizarre exhibition of photographs.  It was called "Good and Evil", and was sponsored by TV channel.  As near as I could tell it was all photos of celebrities made up to look like characters from fairy tales or stories, each with elaborate makeup, costumes and backdrops.

Olga Drozdova as, well, I'm guessing she's Pinocchio, right?  There were also two different photos of two different guys playing Gollum, and a vampire, and a Baba Yaga and a group that looked like the Adams Family and, well, you sort of get the idea. Or more likely you don't, so welcome to my world.

This is the kind of thing I was referring to earlier.  Stuff happens around you and you often have only the vaguest notion of what's going on.  Maybe if I'd been able to read all the accompanying signage it would have made some kind of sense.  Coming as it did after the Unites Arab Emirates Bagpipe and Bongo Corps, the space-going pooch and the chrome-plated jingoistic telecom equipment, it was a bridge too far for me.  I made a hasty retreat (after stopping in the gift shop for a bit of early Christmas shopping) and then decamped to the nearest café for a very large coffee and a bit of what passes for normality these days.

And so passes another week in Moscow.  I miss the bagpipes already.


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