Death and Life in St. Basil's

If a foreigner could name a single architectural symbol of Russia, it would likely be this Cathedral at the Red Square in Moscow. Its ornate, multicolored onion domes often appear in tourist advertising and news reports alike reinforcing immediate association with my Motherland. 

(I use the term "Motherland," rather than "Fatherland," deliberately, as it underscores the nocturnal-feminine essence of Russia, unlike, say, the diurnal-masculine nature of Germany.)

Those  with a bit more interest in the subject of history are likely aware that the structure was erected upon Ivan's IV (misnamed "the Terrible," rather than a more accurate "the Formidable" in English) conquest of Kazan' in the middle of the 16th century, and refers to Basil the Blessed, a well-known holy fool. 

Yet it takes investigating the interior to teleport oneself into the age of the very first tsar, the consolidator of Russia. Whereas St. Basil's is currently a museum, its thick walls, narrow winding staircases, cool temperature, and damp scent throughout enhance the feeling of authentic mystery offered by intricate otherworldly Orthodox gold surroundings glistening in daylight coming from its tall windows. The latter also illuminate--faintly--murky wall paintings and icons darkened by age and candle smoke alike. 

Elongated, fairytale-like red-and-black Old Slavonic text throughout the building is sometimes difficult to read even for native Slavs. Equally magical dragons or St. George, the symbol of Moscow, slaying the latter make numerous appearances. Fresco angels are in constant communication with each other across the arches. St. Basil's lavish tomb is the centerpiece of the Cathedral's interior, in which Death and Eternal Life coexist within the same space. 

Despite the 11th-century schism, one cannot help but be reminded of Abbot Suger's meditative writings on church architecture and interior design (to use contemporary language) for which St. Basil's at the heart of Moscow is living proof.

P.S. All images are mobile.

"A Specialist in Black Magic"

"At the hour of sunset, on a hot spring day, two citizens appeared in the Patriarchs' Ponds Park. One, about forty, in a gray summer suit, was short, plump, dark-haired and partly bald. He carried his respectable pancake-shaped hat in his hand, and his clean-shaven face was adorned by a pair of supernaturally large eyeglasses in a black frame. The other was a broad-shouldered young man with a mop of shaggy red hair, in a plaid cap pushed well back on his head, a checked cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers. [...]

And just at the moment when [one of them] was telling the [other] how the Aztecs used to fashion figurines of Vitzli-putzli out of dough - [a strange] man appeared on the walk. [...]

First of all, the man described did not limp on any leg, and was neither short nor enormous, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold on the right. He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle's head. He looked to be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted. Clean-shaven. Dark-haired. Right eye black, left - for some reason - green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner. [...]

"You're German?' [the second citizen] inquired.

'I? ...' the [man] repeated and suddenly fell to thinking. 'Yes, perhaps I am German ...' he said.

'YOU speak real good Russian,' [the second citizen] observed.

'Oh, I'm generally a polyglot and know a great number of languages,' the [stranger] replied.

'And what is your field?' [the first citizen] inquired.

'I am a specialist in black magic.'"

(MASTER AND MARGARITA, Mikhail Bulgakov, ch. 1, tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Patriarch's Ponds, Moscow (mobile)

A Bit of a Detour

Having been doing a lot of this:

Between St. Basil Cathedral and the mausoleum at the Red Square

Between St. Basil Cathedral and the mausoleum at the Red Square

 ...I was quite pleased with my last-minute decision to get off the subway at a station where I did most of my sports, such as figure skating, as a child. After all, in addition to what some have termed "late Soviet nostalgia," this is the location of a 400+-year-old New Maiden (Novodevichii) convent with imposing, fortress-like walls of red and white brick. While the structure is a world-heritage site, it is somewhat off the beaten path as far as tourism is concerned, making its quiet park, lush with greenery this time of the year, a welcome change of pace. 

"An Interesting City"

"At sunset, high over the city, on the stone terrace of one of the most beautiful houses in Moscow, a house built about a hundred and fifty years ago, there were two: Woland and Azazello. They could not be seen from the street below, because they were hidden from unwanted eyes by a balustrade with plaster vases and plaster flowers. But they could see the city almost to its very edges. 

Woland was sitting on a folding stool, dressed in his black soutane. His long and broad sword was stuck vertically into a crack between two flags of the terrace so as to make a sundial. The shadow of the sword lengthened slowly and steadily, creeping towards the black shoes on Satan's feet. Resting his sharp chin on his fist, hunched on the stool with one leg drawn under him, Woland stared fixedly at the endless collection of palaces, gigantic buildings and little hovels destined to be pulled down. 

Azazello, having parted with his modern attire -- that is, jacket, bowler hat and patent-leather shoes -- and dressed, like Woland, in black, stood motionless not far from his sovereign, like him with his eyes fixed on the city. 

Woland began to speak: 

'Such an interesting city, is it not?'

Azazello stirred and replied respectfully: 

'I like Rome better, Messire.' 

'Yes, it's a matter of taste,' replied Woland."

(MASTER AND MARGARITA, Mikhail Bulgakov, ch. 29., tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky.) 

 

The Kremlin at sunset (mobile).

The Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow at sunset  (mobile).

Moscow in Detail (part II)

Elsewhere, I've posted about random chance revealing what I consider the Byzantine-Eurasian essence of Russia. Today, however, mobile shots of various details throughout Moscow have channeled something that was almost Dionysian.

And it was not surprising: the places I passed by today, while engaged in tourist photography---associated with Bulgakov and Gogol--are infused with the kind of folkic and archetypal otherworldliness that is symptomatic of their literature. Though, not everyone feels it. More on that later.

Tonight, Tonight

As you can see from this mobile test shot, the stormy sky has finally cleared up, serving as an impressionistic backdrop in the shades of pink, lilac, and gold for Moscow's onion-domed heart on its name-sake river. I feel a little bit like Woland overlooking the City. This calls for night shooting, because sleep is overrated.

The only thing missing in this metropolis is the Moon. (That, too, is something Woland would say, isn't it? But then, of course, he'd make the Moon appear.)

 

Moscow in Detail

Perhaps, it is the fact that my primary profession in the last decade pertained to graphic design that I'm drawn to architectural detail and its underlying geometry. Be that as it may, my random mobile shots of equally random places here in Moscow confirm the obvious: the presence of the European and the "Asiatic," the Soviet atheist past (at least officially) and the unconcealment of religion in the present reveal the essence of our dual-headed Eurasian eagle.

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Arbat: the Good, the Bad, and the Really Expensive

When it comes to Moscow, Old Arbat is a busy tourist "paradise" brimming with kitschy "folk," akin to those in other foreign metropolises. And, as such, it makes many Russians themselves feel discomfort (conscious or otherwise) at the idea of Tradition within a rather wild consumer space.

But it is precisely this quality that makes it an ideal place for photographing strangers, or what I call "the City." After all, there are the slowly walking, sometimes awkward foreigners ready to blow too much money on souvenirs that are not worth it, snooty rich Russians dressed like a single, combined high-end brand advertising heading into Starbucks for their triple macchiato, street artists forced to draw pointless Hollywood celebrities to showcase their technical skills (those of the artists', not the celebrities!), on and on and on.

Certainly,  I post a lot of nature and wildlife imagery, and my commission work often involves conceptual editorial photography. Yet, documentary images of people are one of my favorite subjects to pursue. (When I used to draw regularly, I preferred realistic portraiture, not much different from the aforementioned street artists.)

On a number of recent occasions, it happened to be Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku (Tokyo)--a delightfully trashy area--that provided excellent opportunities for "stalking the City." (Now that I think about it, I've also done the same in Nagoya and Hakodate, sans the "trash.") So when I went to Old Arbat the other day, I felt a bit like a sniper with my telephoto lens targeting certain characters I encountered in the act of, well, being themselves. 

Needless to say, I cannot wait to process the images! In the meantime, here are some mobile shots of Arbat tourism.

Vorontsov Estate

One of the best aspects to visiting your place of birth is discovering hidden gems that were nearby all along. Checking out the Vorontsov Estate (Vorontsovky Park) today proved to be such a case. This is a late 18th-century complex that was destroyed in the fires during the Napoleonic wars and subsequently rebuilt.

I grew up quite close to this area of Moscow, but had no idea that the place even existed. In fact, military buffs should recognize this estate as the location of a secret factory, where German inventor Franz Leppich attempted to build a war dirigible(!) in 1812, albeit unsuccessfully (else this would've been the first example of primitive bombing from air). I think it is safe to add this find to my list of badassery!

Whereas Vorontsovsky Park's history was a surprise--to me, at least--the subject matter of today's photoshoot was not. After all, I came across a few inquisitive Eurasian crows (hooded grey-and-black ones) which I just had to stalk. Yes, I photograph wildlife even in one of the biggest cities in the world! Of course, chasing vorony (crows) in Vorontsov Park was wholeheartedly approved by Carl Jung! (See what I did there?!) A number of colorful personalities that could only be Slavic also made the cut. Perhaps, I would be able to collect enough images to apply to the annual Best of Russia competition. 

Oh, and sorry about the iPad-shot candids below.

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