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.
I went to Florence and didn’t see the Uffizi, I went to Brugge and didn’t see the Leonardo Madonna, and I went to Moscow and didn’t see Lenin’s Tomb, though it was no fault of my own — that part of Red Square was closed off to prepare for a national holiday. But I felt more torn up about not seeing the house of modern architect Konstantin Melnikov, which had been preserved as a museum like the John Soane house in London. Melnikov’s house, just off Arbaty, Moscow’s main shopping street, was closed. Nonetheless I lingered around the sidewalk in front and took some unremarkable through-the-fence-and-foliage photos of it.
A gentleman passing by explained that Melnikov’s family owned the house and were currently raising funds to have it refurbished. It looked terribly run down, with peeling paint and boarded windows, and spookily overgrown trees and bushes. The house consists of two cylinders stacked like the figure 8 in plan. They’re built entirely of brick, and adorned with rows of small, space-age hexagonal windows. Only the back of the house, which faces a yard, is opened with a large picture window. From archival photos what’s most fascinating is the way the acoutrements of everyday life (curtains, tables, lamps) rest so uneasily inside the structure. At Soane’s house there’s no distinction between architecture and furnishing, between building and life; the place is one thick, voluptuous substance. The Melnikov House seems inviolable, as if it wouldn’t lend itself so easily to occupation.
I had a high school history teacher who told us that history was a story, and another who told us that history was people. I would like to believe the latter. Visiting the Armoury Chamber, the Kremlin’s national history museum, I was mesmerized by those objects (robes, slippers, mirrors, thrones, carriages, … ) that had been belonged to the tsars and tsarinas. There’s a pair of black leather over-the-knees boots worn by Peter the Great when he was supervising the construction of St. Petersburg, whose size (they nearly reached my hips) gives a sense of how Great he really was. They’re punkish, with chunky heels and a soft patina, covered with a film of St. Petersburg muck. And they’re both identical, because, apparently, while the Russians had the ability to dredge the canals of St. Petersburg, they didn’t have the ability to design left and right shoes.
Most enchanting were the objects of the young tsars. There’s a sleigh carriage used by Peter’s son Alexey, whose small size (it is also hip-high) gives it a toy-like grace. It’s windows are sealed with micah rather than glass, which must have given the boy a strange, softened view of the world outside. Because of uncertainties in succession the Russians sometimes crowned boys tsars and, at least once, in 1682, two at the same time. That was when Peter (he was ten) was crowned alongside his less robust brother Ivan (he was fifteen). Inside the museum there’s the lovely twin throne they shared at the coronation. And there are the crowns they wore: the traditional Crown of Monomakh (above) for Ivan and, for Peter, a smaller, fancier replica. They’re dreamy. To see them is to feel, whatever one’s political inclinations, like a royalist.
One thing I did not see nearly enough of in Russia was Bad Communist Architecture. You know, the sort of overbearing, rationalist, concrete megaliths we associate with the cold war. There were, in the parts of St. Petersburg I visited, precious few communist-era buildings to be seen, and those were sedately neoclassical. The entire city seems to have been restored to its picturesque eighteenth-century origins. It wasn’t until we arrived at St. Petersburg’s Moscow Station (Moskovsky Vokzal) that I found what I’d been searching for.
While the main station is from the nineteenth century, the small hall from which we departed is from 1912. It’s a simple concrete shell with bare walls, clerestory windows, and a triangulated concrete ceiling, anchored by a giant bust of Peter the Great raised on a pillar right in the middle. (The bust was added in 1993.) Light from the clerestories threw delicate shadows across the concrete, giving the entire space a special softness. The design isn’t terribly complicated (just compare this ceiling to the triangulated concrete ceilings of Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery), but it’s simple, handsome and well-proportioned. Peter the Great’s presence is a bit bombastic but adds warmth, focus, and a sense of history. Maybe without it the hall would have felt exactly like one of the sturdy, unglamorous communist buildings I was romanticizing.