Sunday 22 September
Our guide Oleg has a theory about why Russia appears to be a pumped-up version of Europe; why the buildings are grander and bigger, the roads wider and the people more deeply passionate. He believes that Russia has always wanted to be considered part of Europe but hasn’t quite made it. To prove its Europe-worthiness it has unconsciously magnified its appearance. Since Oleg is a philosophy lecturer, I take him seriously.
Today we got off lightly. Oleg only made us walk for five and a half hours, one less than yesterday and with the concession of a coffee stop. He took us to Russia’s leading art gallery, Tetyalov, concentrating on paintings by Russian artists from the 11th to early 20th century. I was blown away by Oleg’s knowledge of art. He seemed to know the history and significance of every painting in the vast gallery. Not only that, but the character depictions formed historical pathways of their own.
The gallery as it stands today was built in 1989. It provides perfect light for viewing the paintings while its air conditioning system removes moisture as well as maintaining an even temperate of 23 degrees – certainly better than the brass monkey weather outside.
The biggest painting in the gallery is called The Appearance of Christ to the People by A.A. Ivanov, 1806 – 1857. In clear realism, it depicts a group of people who have just been for a baptismal swim. Besides being huge, the painting comes with a story. It took poor Ivanov 20 years to complete it – but only a minor part of that was spent wielding his brush. First, he made some sketches to decide the painting’s layout and how many people it would show. Then came the time-consuming part. He had to find models for every one of the figures. To do this he went crowd mingling and, when he saw a face he fancied, had to convince its owner to sit for him. As you can see, quite a few of the people are putting their gear back on after the dip – posing an additional challenge: ‘excuse me sir, you have just the bum I need. Would you mind . . .’
Another painting I especially liked by I.Levitan shows a log bridge over a river. As you enter the gallery, the logs appear to be on an acute angle but as you walk past the painting they straighten and then go to the opposite angle. Oleg tells me that it is no accident. Great artists like Levitan can do that – like the eyes of a face that follow you around the room.
Near the art gallery is a stylish apartment block that was built in the 1930s as part of a government move to house artists together in condominiums, according to pursuit. This one specialised in writers, one of them being Boris Pasternak who wrote part of Dr Zhivago here. But the idea of artist residential-bundling didn’t take off and it was abandoned. I can see why. Imagine a building full of fashion designers. They’d be throwing one another out of windows after the first week.
Must-sees in Moscow are the metro train stations, mostly built after the end of the Second World War on Stalin’s orders. Each one is in a different but spectacular architectural style. There is lavish use of marble, stained glass, chandeliers, frescoes, ceiling mouldings and statues. The regular locals probably don’t notice them, but to the visitor they are breathtaking. The metro system itself is one of the best in Europe. Trains run every two minutes and go like the clappers. They allow only 15 seconds for passengers to get on and off. Oleg says it pays to be pushy – if you want to survive.
Hotel toaster review
I hesitate to call this contraption a hotel toaster. It looks like a dual slot domestic model, except the bread descends automatically into the depths with the speed of the Wurlitzer organist in an old picture theatre, and you are left with five buttons to contemplate as to function. Once toasting is completed (poorly) the slow ascension leaves the hot toast short of the top so that you have to toast your fingers as well to get it out.
I hope that my very good friend, Derek Breadchamber (hotel toaster reviewer for The New York Times), doesn’t see this. He will not be pleased that I’m wasting my time on pseudo domestic toasters.