When I arrived, It was snowing in Moscow. Big flakes, as big as my thumbnail. As we stood in the lamplight at Shermatyvo, waiting for our car, the flakes spiraled like endless small birds through the pools of light. The women were wearing bulky coats and the men long cloth coats or heavy jackets. Although it was nearly the end of December, the winter clothes weren’t needed. The air was warm, the way that only winter air can be, as if it were soft to the touch, and underfoot the snow was turning to slush so that I was glad I’d bought waterproof boots at Sears before I’d left.
“Taxi, you want a taxi,” a man said in heavily accented English.
“Good capitalists,” Ivan said, laughing and waving him away. “He has a car and wanst to make a few rubles. Gorbachev’s New Man.”
Our car arrived and once I was sitting down, I realized how tired I was. It was dark out so there wasn’t much to see, snow and darkened buildings and , sometimes, a high fence. It wasn’t the way I had imagined it. The idea surprised me because I hadn’t realized I’d expected anything.
“You’ve been traveling a long time?” Ivan asked.
“Twenty-four hours,” I answered, wondering if it were true, confused by the lack of sleep, the eleven hour time change, the shifting images of airports, the surprise I always feel at having arrived somewhere distant after a long trip.
“We’ll be at the hotel s shortly. You’ll sleep then.”
But I didn’t sleep. Instead, I spent the night alternating between lying on my bed and standing in the window, watching the street. For most of the night the street was empty, then a city crew appeared, noisily scraping away the snow and some time after that a woman unlocked the doors to the building opposite the hotel. She went inside and a minute later a light went on and I could see that she was in some kind of office. Then, gradually, although it was still dark, people began to appear in two’s and three’s and enter the buildings. Lights began to go on here and there.
Standing there I had a sense of deja vu and this time I knew what it was that I’d experienced at the airport. The first time I felt quite small, as if I were a child again, waiting at a bus stop in Winnipeg with my grandmother and now, I felt like a young man, standing at a window of the Royal Alex Hotel. There was the same winter darkness, the same bulky, dark clothed figures scurrying through the cold, that same intensity of light from the windows. The hotel room with its high ceiling and the bathroom with its black and white tiles had something elegant and practical about it at the same time, the way CN hotels always made me feel.
At breakfast, I was disappointed by the samovar. I’d always thought they were filled with tea but discovered it contained only hot water. There was a buffet of cheese and bread and sliced meat and cold vegetables. I wasn’t hungry but I drank four cups of chi. I learned to say chi right away. It was my first Russian word. There were others I knew because they’d become English words. Words like czar and commissar but this one would always be special to me, the way the first word learned in a foreign place is always special.
“Today,” Ivan said, “you go sightseeing with Olga. Very good English. Very pretty. You take car. You brought camera? You can take pictures anywhere. Ask anything. Glasnost is here.”
But the car didn’t arrive. Ivan sent me to shop in the Berioshka while he telephoned about the car. Outside, the snow had quit falling and the day was clear and cold. When Ivan found me among the marushkas, he was apologetic about the car but shrugged his shoulders signifying nothing could be done. Later, Olga apologized twice more. It told her I was glad someone else had taken the car because it meant we could walk. The day was colder than the previous one and the freshly frozen ice crunching under our feet and our breath rising in plumes reminded me of being twenty in Winnipeg. There was the delicious feeling of being warm inside my clothes and walking beside a pretty woman to somewhere interesting.
On the way to the Kremlin I suddenly felt that strange disorientation I sometimes feel when I encounter something totally unexpected in a foreign place. City crews were hanging snowmen and bunting and signs saying Happy New Year on the lamp standards. The streets were thick with people dressed in the same motley of jogging suits and American parkas that you’d see in Regina or Edmonton. Waiting at a red light, I was overcome with black and white images I’d repeatedly seen on World At War. It was like I kept expecting bombed out buildings and people struggling through the snow, pulling the dead on sleighs.
We waited in line for a ticket to the Cathedrals. The domes were surrounded by scaffolding. The new gold leaf shimmered in the clear winter sky, filling the air with yellow light. Before I left Canada, one of my friends said, “Moscow is an Eastern city. There you will know you are not in the West.” but as I stood in line, looking at the multiple onion domes and crooked crosses, instead of everything seeming foreign and mysterious, it made me think of Winnipeg and small prairie towns.
There were a hundred people ahead of us waiting for tickets. We shuffled forward for half an hour before we reached the booth. It had three windows. Although it was a holiday and the city was filled with visitors, two of the windows were shut. The one that was open was small, no more than a hand’s width and so low that everyone had to bow down to ask for tickets.
After seeing the glory of the cathedrals from the outside, the interiors were a disappointment. They felt closed in, cramped, heavy, more like caves for the dead than entrances to the Resurrection. I could imagine centuries of worshippers crowded together in their dark clothes, holding candles, hoping to get a glimpse of the icons which rose from floor to ceiling, barbaric, full of vanity and authority, promising everything which was unobtainable on earth.
“Here are icons,” Olga said. I could hardly have missed them. The paintings were in rows from floor to ceiling. “We are not religious but these are our heritage, our history, so we must preserve them.”
She said it with all the feeling of a tape recorder. Intrigued, I began to watch her out of the corner of my eye, wondering it would be possible for an honest moment to emerge, when she might say something she had not repeated a thousand or ten thousand times before. I’d heard that voice in other places, wherever there were tourists. Tour guides on buses talked like this. Except when I was in Hamburg. In Hamburg it had been different. The guide, even after he’d been told, could not grasp that we were Canadians. He would be describing some historical building, his voice running in a worn groove and then, as if he’d had a short circuit in his program, he’d suddenly and bitterly describe how the area had been bombed by Americans and how women and children and old people had to sleep in the snow and rain. These accusations would appear suddenly and disappear as suddenly, nearly incoherent fragments of some nightmare world.
“Here are more icons,” Olga said as we rounded a pillar. “You are Christian. You must like icons.” There was a flicker of emotion in her voice. Concern, I thought. As if she were worried that I was not reacting correctly, that my interest had not been properly calculated.
I thought I might try to explain to her about Christians, about the difference between Catholic and Protestant, about Martin Luther and graven images, about the splintered and splintering Catholic church, about Jimmy Swaggert, about people who kiss snakes to get close to God, about a religion so full of permutations it can preach forgiveness and love and yet manifest itself as a bumper sticker imploring every passerby to kill a Commie for Christ. Instead, I followed her down the narrow stone steps and into the sunlight and was happy with the crowds of children, the clusters of tourists, the Russians on holiday and wondered as she led me to see Napoleon’s cannon what she would look like without her large coat and her chapka, what she would wear if it were a warm day in June. Ivan had said over breakfast that she was a single mother and now I wondered if she had a lover, if when she went home at night, she spoke to him with anger or passion or fear or love, with something in her voice other than the practiced neutrality of memorization and then I remembered the stories about eight people sharing a two or three room apartment and wondered instead if this, then, showing me about the city, was not what she escaped from but what she escaped to.
After the debris of Napoleon’s defeat, we looked at the Czar’s bell and the czar’s cannon. The czar’s cannon had never been fired and his bell had never been lifted from the ground. They had been built too big to actually be used. Now, they were just curiosities, concrete examples of ambition gone mad.
Olga left me at the hotel but after lunch she returned with the missing car. We rode out to a brown and white castle that looked like it had been made of iced chocolate cake. She told me it had been used to house ex-czarinas. The idea took me by surprise. It had never occurred to me that one had to do something with left over czarinas. In America the divorced and widowed wives of the rich and powerful married someone who could afford to keep them and faded into an obscurity broken only by scandal or death. Like the cathedrals, the neglected castle was surrounded by scaffolding.
“Are they planning on having more czarinas?” I joked, pointing at the repairs.
“Peristroika. For tourists to look at.”
“We can say what we wish. There are demonstrations nearly every day on Red Square.”
She showed me Moscow University, then we went to the Lenin Hills Here, because of the view, we got out of the car. I asked about the ski jump. She told me how high it was, the amount of materials in it, how long it took to build, how fast the skiers traveled. I said, thinking that even for a guide she knew an exceptional number of facts, “Does you son use the ski jump?”
She turned sharply toward me and blurted out, like someone else had suggested the same thing before me, “Never, never, would I let him do this. It’s much too dangerous.”
The chauffeur had got out and was smoking a Canadian cigarette a little ways away. She glanced at him, then added, “Of course, if he showed talent and, if he could bring honour to the Soviet Union and if he was needed, I wouldn’t keep him from doing what was best for the country.”