22 September 2019
On the way back from our Golden Ring tour we visited a museum dedicated to Russian astronauts. While Yuri Gargarin is the most famous, the museum told the compelling story of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space who took a solo flight of about 24 hours in 1963. Using now primitive technology she went aloft without really knowing what to expect. Taking off, she promptly half-filled her space helmet with vomit, then felt even sicker when she discovered that a miscalculation had her headed for a permanent place in the firmament with no return ticket. Ground controllers got out their slide rulers and gave her new coordinates – which she followed. It worked and she came back.
She was born in 1937 and is still alive, now a revered and very active celebrity.
Also in the space museum I found a picture of my Russian twin brother (we don’t usually talk about him because he defected). I’d forgotten that he had become a famous astronaut.
Back in Moscow our Intercontinental room had suffered a slight downgrade with now only one bathroom featuring an out-of-control heated toilet seat that obliged short sittings, but a separate lounge and plenty of storage. The wardrobe was equipped with two gasmasks. Was a gas attack imminent? Nobody we asked in the hotel knew what they were for.
Today (Saturday 21 September) we awaited the arrival of our guide. Because this was a scheduled walkathon, I hoped for a middle aged, large Russian woman with a bad leg so that she might prefer trains or taxis to hoofing it. But no, Oleg turned up, young and wide, with eager thighs and calves. Not only that, he is a professor of philosophy (his specialty is the philosophy of ‘honour’, about which he has written two books) and does tour guiding as a hobby. His knowledge was staggering, all delivered with a sense of humour. We walked, with hardly a break, for six and a half hours, rendering my lower half numb by the end.
Most of our time was spend in the Kremlin, along with about half a million other people. Oleg’s bulk proved to be invaluable as he bulldozed lighter weight visitors out of the way with us in his wake. Once past the elaborate airport-like security, we made for The Armoury – not a place of weapons but a whole range of exotic memorabilia covering several centuries. This is regarded as Russia’s leading museum. And for all its overwhelming presentation, only seven percent of its treasures are on display. The rest are stored in the basement. There are plans to build additional museum space to show more of them.
We inspected a spectacular line-up of old carriages, several used to transport Catherine the Great around Russia. One early design had the obligatory four wheels, but they were fixed, meaning that the carriage had no steering. When it needed to turn a corner, two powerfully built servants had to jump off the back and lift the carriage (including occupants) around to face the new direction. Both steering and suspension came later.
Other items included clothing and formal household goods of royalty and nobility, plus diplomatic gifts from all over the world. Napoleon once gave the Czar a superb hand painted porcelain dinner set, but the Czar never used it because close examination revealed that Napoleon had had already used it for his dinner and the Czar didn’t accept second-hand stuff.
Outside the armoury is the world’s biggest bronze bell, weighing 200 tonnes. The first attempt to forge it in a huge fire-pit built on site failed, and the forger was so disappointed he had a heart attack and died. His son then stepped up and had another go which succeeded – sort of – because it rained during the casting and a chunk fell off. It was therefore never rung, but if it had been, it was estimated you could have heard it 23 kilometres away and those close to it would have experienced no sound but simply bodily, low frequency vibrations. When I visited Myanmar two years ago, I crawled beneath the second biggest bell in the world – but that one rang.
Next to the armoury is the diamond room. Michelle, who is partial to a well-cut sparkler, went weak at the knees as we passed glass cases holding some of the world’s biggest and rarest gemstones and royal jewellery. And just to top off the wealth, other cases showed famous massive gold nuggets. The whole display was genuine and priceless. As Oleg remarked, there are more cameras in the building than bricks.
Within the Kremlin compound is a big square in which we were lucky enough to see a parade of soldiers done up 19thCentury, somewhat ridiculous uniforms. There was also a brass band and a team of soldiers on horseback. The whole troupe put on a grand show of rifle twirling (bayonets attached – but no one-armed soldiers as far as I could see), horsey tricks and goose-stepping formation marching. At one stage the soldiers fired their rifles, giving the crowd a fright but not the horses who knew it was coming.
The huge wall around the Kremlin looks as though it is made of billions of bricks. Actually, it is, but the real bricks are behind a protective coating that is dressed up to look like, you’ve guessed it, bricks!
Red Square is not red, I was disappointed to find. In Russian, ‘red’ means ‘excellent’. It is overlooked by the famous St Basil’s Cathedral, the most photographed and symbolic building in Russia. I could have downloaded a photograph, but this one is my contribution to artistic photography, taken with great care on my Box Brownie.