May 11, 2018: Life and Death in Moscow, Russia

In Moscow, the sun rises at 4:30 this time of year.  It doesn’t set until nearly. 9 pm.  That`s a lot of daylight, and I have made it my business to use every minute of it to explore, sometimes to the detriment of keeping up with this blog.

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This morning`s run took me to Moscow’s most elite address – Novodevichy Cemetery, a stunning ramshackle necropolis that holds more than century’s worth of famous Russians.

Most famous among Novodevichy’s luminaries are none of than Boris Yeltsin and Nikita Khrushchev.  Stalin’s wife is also buried here, alongside hundreds of Russian poets, actors, musicians, soldiers, and cosmonauts.  In the Soviet era, the only honor higher than burial here was to be interred in the walls of the Kremlin itself…

The whole necropolis feels a little bit like a costume party in a really big, slightly overgrown backyard… Except everyone came dressed as an abstract, stone version of themselves.  Soviet life emphasized the elevation of the common man, but there is nothing common about these monuments, which seem to be in an arms race to outdo each other…  Luckily, this arm race is different from the Cold War – no one gets hurt because they’re already dead…

I feel like this is one of the most intimate windows into the hope, dreams, and values of Russia’s most accomplished elite.  The soldier’s monuments ripple with military imagery – helicopters, derrigibles, and even ICBMs carved in lurid detail into the granite.  One mathematician’s grave is covered with formulas, both solved and incomplete.  Some guy has a tombstone that depicts both a Viking ship riding a choppy wave and a flying saucer over the cratered surface of some far off world.  Yeltin’s grave is a giant stone depiction of a rippling Russian flag that looks a bit like a cake that someone dropped a bowling ball into.  There is even a guy who is depicted in stone with a frilly collar and a monkey on his shoulder…  This graveyard hints at so many untold stories of Soviet life and aspirations…  Today I am left wondering, but I vow to understand…

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After a fantastic lunch and even better conversation with my friend Viktor, I visited the massive GUM department store.   The building dates to the late Nineteenth Century, just like the cemetery.  It is a stunning old building on Red Square that in Soviet times was distinguished not only by its size and location but by the fact that it rarely experienced shortages of consumer goods. As a result, lines of eager customers from all over Moscow would sometimes stretch well into the square outside.

The history and architecture make GUM well worth the visit, but I have to say that the whole place is full of people with too much money and not enough imagination…  I’m just not all that impressed by international luxury brands.

In the end, though there’s not much difference between GUM and Novodevichy Cemetery, is there?

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Both are parade grounds for different kinds of vanity…  But I’ll give the folks buried at Novodevichy the benefit of the doubt…  The sometimes excessive opulence of their tombs was likely chosen for them by others; the shoppers at GUM don’t have that excuse!

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