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The Cathedral and Three Less Academic Experiences

April 14, 2009 at 8:31 am
By Shane, Kenny, Kevin

As part of our excursion, we visited the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. We had hoped to see the panorama from a viewing platform high up in the cathedral, but only guided tours are allowed to go there. Still, just walking around the interior provided quite an experience. Our guide for this excursion, Yulia (a Russian student from MGU) was helpful in trying to decipher the Old Church Slavonic inscriptions that lined the walls and formed the borders of many icons.  This ancient form of the Russian language is, believe it or not, even more of a nightmare than the modern variation. It contains several more letters and written words are often abbreviated to the tune of skipping a few vowels. Sometimes, to be nice, a squiggly line above the remaining letters invites the reader to imagine for himself what the full word could be.

The cathedral, which was rebuilt only in the 1990’s, also features numerous icons. In fact, it was hard to find a space on any of the walls that wasn’t covered by either an icon or an inscription. We talked to Yulia about icons because our understanding of an icon was very limited. To many of us, an icon was specifically a portrait image of a Saint, sometimes head and shoulders and sometimes just the head.  Yulia explained to us that icons are not so limited. Any religious portrayal counts as an icon, to some extent, and this cathedral had many icons would not have met our original criteria. Some of the most interesting icons represented not just a person, but certain religious events. There were even icons painted to show three dimensions, very rare in Russian icons.  Furthermore, the style of icons was entirely different to those that we saw in the Cathedral near Rogozhskoe Cemetery. The icons in that cathedral were dark, giving the cathedral a gloomy appearance. In the Christ the Savior Cathedral, the entire space was bright, clean, and the icons themselves were painted in very light colors. The feeling that this gave the viewer was entirely different. Christ the Savior Cathedral felt far more like a tourist attraction than the Rogozhskoe Cathedral that we had visited.

Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow

Then again, the Cathedral serves another purpose as well. The original cathedral was built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon in the first of the Patriotic Wars, (the other is the Great Patriotic War, which everyone else calls World War II) also known as the War of 1812.  Building a cathedral to commemorate a military victory is an old pastime of the Tsars, but given the scale of the conflict, they decided to go wild and the result now sits on the bank of the Moskva River.  Inside the cathedral, many of the walls are covered in script – not prayers in Old Church Slavonic, but memorials and testimonials to the lives lost in the struggle against the invading French.  It seemed as strange thing to see in a church, until you recalled the cathedral’s purposes.

We have no doubt that the other groups will have some more fascinating information to add about the cathedral. We’ve written enough about cathedrals in the last two weeks, so we’ll now each share with you one less academic story or reflection about our time in Moscow:

Kenny writes about the banya (the bathhouse):

Tucked away in a dirty, abandoned courtyard of Moscow State University (well, there were some dumpsters and rusting Soviet-era cars) is an unimportant grey door and through it a set of stairs that go down. With some reluctance I took this route late at night last week, accompanied by Mark, Andy and his Russian host student from MGU, Kostya. I certainly would have my doubts about the place if I had been going alone. But once inside, the atmosphere abruptly became warm, bright, even inviting: a central room with a pool table and couches and a dozen or so male Russian students wearing only towels. We followed suit and soon found out what this place was really all about. It wasn’t about playing pool on a table with pockets smaller than the balls, drinking awful “Baltika 7” and trying to keep a straight face, or strumming on an old guitar while desperately trying to recall some Hank Williams for these poor, uninitiated Russians as at first seemed the case. No, this was something much more special: banya. The first room was all just a prologue where the characters could meet.

Act I soon began. Andy, Mark and I followed the other guys into a cramped, wood-paneled room with two wood benches (a low one and a high one behind it like in a stadium) on which to sit in pain or enjoyment depending on your outlook. It felt about 120 degrees. Realizing this wasn’t nearly enough, one of the Russians ladled some water onto the rocks above the fire that blazed in the corner. We sat  jammed-together in two rows for a while in “golden silence” and then the interesting conversation started, man-to-man, culture to culture. The big guy to my right asked slowly and weightily how I related to Armenians, with such apprehension that I think he must have been fearing a negative answer. Another Russian student asked teasingly, “Well now, are Russian girls prettier than any others or what?” Instead of a friendly argument as I think he wanted to start, I could only agree that it’s hard to keep my head turned in three different directions at any one moment while walking the Moscow streets—to which he grinned and answered, “Just you wait ‘til summer.”

When sweat was beading up on everyone, the talk threatened to turn to politics, and the heat felt unbearable, someone got up to leave and then the mass exodus began, Act II. We left the room, hung up our towels, and proceeded to jump into a small pool in an adjacent room. That cold water felt so good. Then it was back to the sauna room again—rinse, dry and repeat several times. Surprisingly I did not go into shock.

Act III was the grand finale. We left the sauna room and went back to attempting a game of pool at that table with the impossibly small pockets. One by one we were called back into the sauna room by Kostya, Andy’s friend, the acting shaman over this strange ceremony. He waved a birch branch and beckoned each one in. Strange noises came from the sauna but each survivor emerged refreshed, energetic, and covered in red marks all over. Finally my turn came. As the ancient Russian man-laws prescribe, I entered fearlessly (or at least without that big American smile on my face), spread my towel on the top bench, and lay down on my back, awaiting whatever would come next. I closed my eyes and Kostya started whipping me with leafy birch branches. When they dried out, he dipped them in hot water and the Russian “massage” began again. Front and back. Occasionally Kostya would raise up the birch branch with both hands, slap it down particularly hard, and hold it there. He asked me, “Can you feel the warmth going into you?”

When I came out it was time to shower off all those birch bits, and then we had to run to catch the metro back home before it closed. I was glad to have experienced something so classically Russian:  we had made the acquaintance of some interesting students, picked out a little good ol’ American music for them, and most of all—we felt rejuvenated and birchier than I can ever remember. Not to be missed. 

Kevin remembers Izmailovo:

I spend a few years in Moscow when I was growing up, and one of the things I remember most strongly is the Market in Izmailovo. Somewhat distant from the center of the city, Izmailovo is a region beyond the Yauze river to the East of Moscow. If you aren’t in on the secret, you wouldn’t have much reason to go out there beyond the Lokomotiv Stadium.  As it happens, the Izmailovo market is a very poorly kept secret, and on the weekend it is usually swamped with either expatriates or tourists, depending on tourists are in season.

We decided to head out early in the morning along the blue line metro, trusting in our guidebook to lead us there. This seems to have been a mistake, because we spend an hour and a half walking from the Izmailovo metro station to the Izmailovo market. As it happens, Mayor Luzhkov doesn’t much mind changing the name of a metro station if it’ll beautify the city – Izmailovskii Park station is now Partisanskays station, and we blew right past it on our way out.

We soon reached the market, however, and I was amazed to discover how little it had changed. The vendors sell their wares out of long rows of wooden kiosks, and the construction and style of the place leads you to think that you’ve somehow stepped into a Russian village from the 1700s. Women dressed in traditional folk clothing sang from nearby steps, and everything seemed to be available for sale.

Izmailovo Market 

After taking in the atmosphere, we quickly began to enjoy ourselves. Knock-off DVDs, KGB flasks, and stacking shot glasses crowd out stacking matryoshka dolls, scarves, and painted wooden bowls and spoons. It seems like everything under the sun can be bought for a negotiable price at Izmailovo.

Izmailovo Market Towers 

The market wasn’t extremely full, but it was obvious that most of the people in the streets were foreigners. We heard English in the voices of strangers for the first time in a while, and the vendors quickly switched to semi-fluent English whenever we made a grammar mistake and blew our cover. Pulling ourselves away to lunch on shashlik (shish-kebab, Russian style) and some delicious bread, we sat across from a group of men who were clearly Americans from the South.

Our collective haul included three fake KGB identification cards, (conveniently blank so you can add your own name and picture) two Russia hats, (with insignia that insist that the bearer is a member of the Red Army) some painted spoons, and stomachs that were quite full of shashlik and lavashe. Departing with out plunder, we found Partisanskaya station (which is located within sight of the market) and took our haul home.  Despite our unexpected hike, a leisurely lunch, and a time spent scalping for deals, it was only two in the afternoon when we reached the metro and spend back into the beating heart of the city.

Shane picks a Russian soccer team:

Getting acquainted with the city. Seeing the city’s main attractions. Learning about the city’s history. Trying the local cuisine. Making friends with the locals. Aside from all being sentence fragments (and displeasing to MS Word’s Grammar Checker), the preceding phrases are all examples of important things to do when visiting a city for the first time. However, they are secondary to the most fundamental of tasks: picking a local soccer team. With some seven or so Moscow soccer teams in the first division, this is no small task. The following are the criteria that I used in this process:

1)      Likelihood of winning

You can’t show up in a city and start rooting for the best team in the national league. You just can’t. It’s morally reprehensible, not to mention boring. Sure, going to Spain and watching Real Madrid is cool, but they can’t be your team. They win every second year or so. Another team, Atletico Madrid, their cross-town rival, for example, wins every 10 years or so. Think about it using a lottery analogy. Which seems more exciting?

a)      You buy a ticket for 5$ that has a 50% chance of winning 10$

b)      You buy a ticket for 5$ that has a 10% chance of winning 50$

c)      You buy a ticket for 5$ that has a 0% chance of winning a trillion dollars

Alright, if you picked the first option, than go ahead and root for the favorite. In this case you’ll have to root for Real Madrid in Spain and CSKA Moscow. As for c), I know that the odds are never really 0%, but some of the lower teams are just trying to avoid relegation. They’re just not going to win the league. That doesn’t happen. With b) Remember that you’re probably playing this lottery every year for at least four years or so. Suddenly there’s a 34% chance that the 5$ ticket pays off 50$ in one of those years. Okay, obviously you’ll be spending 20$ on tickets over the four years, but it’s still exciting, right? Main point: Don’t root for CSKA Moscow.

2)      What the team represents

A lot of teams carry historical baggage. Real Madrid, in Spain, was Franco’s team. If you’re a big Franco fan, or just a fascist in general, that’s your team. Otherwise you may want to consider other options. Barcelona, in Spain, is of course the team of the Catalan nationalists. It’s an intriguing idea, but you’re not all that keen on Catalan nationalism. CSKA Moscow is the team of the Russian army. You can’t root for them. It would be unacceptably un-American. Main point: Don’t root for CSKA Moscow.

3)      Who plays on the team

Some people like Russian teams to have all Russian players. I think that this is ridiculous. If everybody is Russian, you can’t tell them apart from your nosebleed seats. You spent all that time reading the Wikipedia article on the team only to find out that it was wasted because all of the players are indistinguishable from a distance anyway. A few African players help this problem. A freakishly tall guy can stand out. Even a really short, young guy who looks like he’s 15 years old is something to root for. Or do you already have a favorite soccer nation? Lot’s of Brazilians play on CSKA Moscow, so if you root for Brazil every World Cup, maybe you want to root for CSKA. Main point: Don’t root for CSKA Moscow.

4)      Proximity to place of residence

If you were born and raised in Los Angeles, people might find it strange for you to be a Boston Celtics fan. If you live in the northeast of Moscow, it’s a little strange to root for CSKA Moscow, who play in the South. Main point: Don’t root for CSKA Moscow.

If you have other factors that should be considered, please write a comment on this page. If you’re my father, however, please don’t; I would find that embarrassing.

My Decision: FK Lokomotiv


There’s so much to like about this team. They don’t win the league very often but they’re a contender. It could happen. The team has always been associated with Russian Railways (I believe that the railway still has a stake in the team today). Rooting for railways is slightly un-American, but not as bad as rooting for the Russian army. Furthermore, who hasn’t dreamed of going on the Trans-Siberian Railroad? Odemwingie, one of their star strikers, was born in Russia to a Nigerian father and a Russian mother. He grew up in Nigeria and plays on the Nigerian national team. They also have a big Senegalese player to root for, although he seems a bit clumsy when it comes to ball control. Their star Russian striker is kind of small and sneaky fast. A very distinguishable lineup. They even play in the northeast of Moscow, where I’m staying!

First Lokomotiv Update:

Lokomotiv is plodding along so far. After two ties in their first two games, both of which were before our arrival, they won in a dramatic comeback again Samara in a game that some of us were very fortunate to attend. Last Sunday, however, was a rather different story, as they lost 4-1 to another team from Moscow. We sat with the Lokomotiv fans and wallowed in collective misery as Lokomotiv proved their inability to defend. When the game was over, all of the home fans were allowed to leave first so that we rowdy away fans wouldn’t get into any fights with them. We waited a good half hour for the stadium to clear out until only our section remained. Finally, we were let out. The worst part of all of this was that the team that beat Lokomotiv happened to be CSKA Moscow…



  • April 26 2009 at 9:05 pm
    Mary Kangas

    I found this very interesting.  Thank you.