After taking in the Kremlin’s immense, impersonal government buildings, arriving at Assumption Cathedral, which is tucked deeper inside, is like falling back in time. Its exterior is a battered, undressed stone that evokes a pre-Christian desert landscape. And its interior — every square inch — is covered in jewel-hued frescoes that tell the story of the church. These aren’t like the frescoes in Renaissance churches, that open windows into fictive space. These are paintings stacked one upon the other, wrapping the walls and crawling up onto the ceiling vaults. Populated with flattened figures in airless gold backgrounds, they’re like very sacred cartoons, rich with knowledge from another age.
The way the embellishment overwhelms the architecture made me think, as I had many, many times during my trip, that Russia not part of Europe but part of Asia. In many ways the country reminds me of India. It’s huge, deeply diverse in culture, and moving boldly into the new century while also remaining stubbornly the same. In Moscow there’s a barely-concealed sense of chaos coursing below the streets that once senses could, at any moment, simply erupt. This latent (and sometimes not) disorder seems like an essential part of the culture.