Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.
Beams of flaxen early-morning sunlight peek through the window of the Moscow hostel I’m staying in and shine on my face. Outside my room, the conversation of other travelers awakens me.
“Isn’t Russia marvelous!” an English architect on sabbatical exclaims to several tourists, “I just love the buildings here,” she says with a smitten voice.
“I would call Moscow marvelous, too,” I think while lying in bed, “a place which can enamor artists and cyclists alike.”
Moscow is both Russia’s capital and an almost 900-year-old city where more than 10 million people live. We cycled 5,800 miles across Russia to finally arrive in the administrative center of a country more than twice as big as the U.S. Like many foreign capitals, Moscow is a jarring juxtaposition of the old and new where 19th-century mansions and Old World history are often overshadowed by high-rise buildings and whirling traffic.
We are resting here for eight days, our longest break since the trip began in April. Nearly half a year of traveling every day has left me road weary and yearning for an ephemeral dose of sedentary living. My short break in Moscow feels like flirting with my desired sense of having a home, and makes me view the city with love-at-first-sight eyes.
I have felt this way before. Several years ago, I was living in Mexico City, often considered the oldest and biggest city in the Americas. The immensity of the city’s size, history and culture enchanted me upon arrival. As months passed, I felt a deeply personal bond, forged from the experiences I had there, formed between myself and the chaotic city I called home. The ending feeling was more meaningful than the curious attraction I felt initially.
In reference to this urban exaltation, French writer Albert Camus wrote, “The loves we share with a city are often secret loves,” in an essay about his native city of Algiers in North Africa. While wandering Mexico City, I often recalled those words. One grows close to cities over time. You live together, forming an odd relationship as the events of your life play out in its streets. The moments one shares with cities become intimate exchanges which, like a lover’s touch, become dear to us and distinguishable from another.
Spending just one week exploring Moscow is like embarking on a series of first dates when everything seems magical and anything is possible. Like Mexico City, Moscow’s history and lengthy development are nearly unfathomable. Traipsing through Moscow’s streets, you can become overwhelmed imagining the infinite number of people’s lives that have been lived out here.
The first mention of a settlement here was in 1147. The outpost’s favorable location on the Moskva River proved to be an excellent defensive location, and, in the 13th century, Moscow was named capital of the principality.
The city’s first residents faced constant risks of invasion from nomadic peoples and Lithuanian and Polish conquerors. The city was burnt to the ground time and again, by Mongol invaders and during the Napoleonic wars, but was always successfully rebuilt. Moscow remained intact during the course of both World Wars, became capital of the USSR, and was the first place to witness the changes of the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s. For nearly nine centuries, Moscow’s residents have both protected their city and witnessed some of the most important events in world history.
Each day here, I have been torn between the need to rest my weary body and the urge to explore this fascinating place. Today, I follow the latter desire and rise early to visit the Lenin Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet Union’s first head of state, still remains on public display.
Unlike many major cities, navigating Moscow is a treat. The city’s metro, or underground subway, makes the train systems in London and New York look like debacles. Entering the metro one descends down a long escalator deep within the earth. The stations underground where one catches a train are like subterranean palaces where massive halls are lit by sumptuous chandeliers. Stained glass windows, bronze statues and rich mosaics decorate the walls. Riding the Moscow metro often feels like touring a museum.
I get off the train in Red Square, Moscow’s famous center. Strolling into the square, the Kremlin, a massive walled citadel which contains impressive churches and the buildings which the presidential administration works in, rises before me. The original towers and brick walls of the Kremlin, designed by Russian and Italian architects in the 15th century, still survive to this day. The walled citadel is a lavish display of palatial architecture that appears like a scene from a children’s fantasy story about knights and dragons.
To the Kremlin’s left, St. Basil’s cathedral, the iconic image of Moscow, and Russia, appears on the horizon. From a distance, its multi-colored spires appear like a magnificent gingerbread house glazed in sugary frosting. The cathedral’s disorder of shapes hides a comprehensible plan of nine chapels: one tall one in the center surrounded by eight smaller ones.
Completed in 1561, the cathedral’s history mirrors the city’s; fires which devastated Moscow destroyed the cathedral several times and it was restored and redecorated in accordance with the artistic traditions of the times. Napoleon himself ordered the cathedral to be destroyed when French troops invaded Moscow, but they lacked enough time to complete the task. The cathedral became a museum in 1923. Ever since, extensive work has been done to restore St. Basil’s original appearance.
Entering the cathedral is like stepping into a different era. A rickety wooden staircase leads up to the central chapel. From there, you can tour the adjoining chapels connected by small hallways that lead to large open rooms with high ceilings covered in paintings and golden icons.
Strolling past St. Basil’s, I step in line between throngs of Asian tourists who await their turn to pass through a metal detector and enter the Lenin Mausoleum, a small stone building where the former Soviet leader lays in rest.
Lenin died of a stroke in the winter of 1924; mourners gathered in droves during the cold winter to view his body before its burial. The Soviet Union’s second leader, Joseph Stalin, proposed to preserve Lenin’s corpse forever. Two scientists were issued a political order to stop the body’s natural decomposition, and, after months of lab work, they stumbled upon a secret formula. Today, Lenin’s body can still be viewed in the mausoleum several times each week.
I pass through a metal detector and armed guards rush me and a small group down a stone staircase into the mausoleum’s depths. We are allowed just 30 seconds to glimpse the mummified remains of arguably one of the most influential men of the 20th century who lies in a glass case under fluorescent lights. I can barely account for what I’ve seen before the guards rush us out and up into the sunlight again.
My brief time in Moscow leaves me fantastically intrigued and desiring to know this city better. During my last day here, I take a long walk around the city center as the sun sets. In an alleyway near Red Square, I stand awestruck staring at the golden domes of churches rising from the Kremlin walls. The sight catches my eye like the furtive glance of a lover across a crowded room. As often happens in cities, the impressive buildings exhibit the marvelous genius of man, serving as a testament to the lofty things humans are capable of achieving.
A city wordlessly communicates these ideas. It is this silent dialogue that makes our love affairs with different cities, however brief, a secret. Perhaps it is that wordless exchange, a perfect understanding, that makes us fall in love with them in the first place.
PHOTO BY LEVI BRIDGES
While in Moscow, cyclists Levi Bridges and Ellery Althaus visited the Lenin Mausoleum. The body is on display several times a week.