Iconic Russia | Contemporary art, White Nights and grey areas

The ATM in Red Square gave me the option of USD or Russian rubles. I thought, “How convenient, a foreign ATM that will allow me to withdraw according to the equivalent US currency- very useful so I won’t have a surprise later on how the exchange rate affects my account balance.” I selected the middle option of “400 USD” and four, very crisp, US one hundred dollar bills shot out of the ATM, almost as if they were freshly minted. I quickly shoved the bills deep into my pocket and withdrew another equivalent in Russian rubles because I needed the local currency to buy food. Stunned and scared to be carrying large amounts of cash and US currency on the Moscow street, I quickly walked away and decided I should return to the hotel to lock up the extra cash along with my passport. This ATM experience was very suspicious, but so typical of the ironic and obviously conflicting situations I was put in during my trip to Russia. I learned it was better to not ask too many questions about “why?” since I observed other locals treat “regulations” with blatant indifference. These cultural nuances are reflected in the article I read right when I returned from my trip: Moscow Never Sleeps – National Geographic MagazineI guess that’s what the Russian’s mean about seeing things in grey instead of just black and white. The guide books and hotel had warned me that using US dollars on the street is illegal in Russia, so why did the ATM in Red Square (next to KGB headquarters) just issue me US dollars and why was it issued in large currency, one hundred-dollar bills? Even ATMs in America normally issue twenty-dollar bills and usually with a limit of around four hundred per day, while this ATM in Moscow gave me the option of up to eight hundred dollars. The only place I have ever seen hundreds come out of an ATM was in Las Vegas, but that’s Vegas. Moscow was definitely home to far more glitz than Vegas, but I was still surprised. In an advertising presentation I learned that for automobile sales worldwide in 2005, the city with the largest volumes of Bentley’s sold was Shanghai followed by Moscow. (Contrary to my initial guesses of places like Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo or Dubai.) 

My interest in Russia started early, when at the age of seven I selected a book on Stalin for my biographical book report. While my classmates chose books on Joe Namath, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Audrey Hepburn and other historical and famous Americans, I remember selecting my mysterious book because the cover featured a photograph of just Stalin’s face and the black and white image had a very close cropping that had some (unconsciously contemporary) aesthetic appeal for me. I had taken a clear transparency and traced a black ink drawing of just his prominent facial features, notably his eyes, nose and large mustache, for the report cover, then wrote about Stalin’s military and historical milestones.  For the final conclusion, I wrote that he must have been a “nice guy” because he was very fond of his dog, which he took almost everywhere. Being an animal lover myself, I figured it meant he had been a good person. I was given an “A” for the report and I very proudly showed my parents. Curiously, neither the teacher nor my parents commented on the terrible things that Stalin represented in the west, so it was not until high school, while studying World War II history, that I learned of Stalin’s atrocities. Embarrassingly, I also learned that not only did Stalin have a favorite dog that accompanied him, but Hitler did too.

It didn’t end my intrigue with Russia though, and during anther high school history class, I read The Russians by Hedrick Smith. That triggered a new fascination with the Trans-Siberian railway, Ballet Russes and the history of Fabergé. In university I read his second edition, The New Russians and a college roommate had spent a summer abroad staying with a family in Moscow and learned to speak Russian. I remember he would sometimes fall asleep studying on the living room couch and once I startled him and he sat up and started sleep talking in Russian. My convictions to visit Russia were sealed when writing my very first gallery report for an art history class, I had selected to write about Matisse and upon learning that Matisse’s greatest patron (Sergei Shchukin: Shchukin collection) was Russian and the majority of his works were in the Hermitage and Pushkin (Henri Matisse – Wikipedia), I knew I had to find a way to get over there. *Shchukin began collecting impressionist work as early as 1897, when it was being rejected by institutions like the Louvre. *Sergei Shchukin – Wikipedia. Another important Russian collector of contemporary art is Ivan Morozov, whose Matisse purchases also contribute to the vast Impressionist and Post Impressionist art collections in the Hermitage and Puskin museums. Morozov collection.

After spending more time studying contemporary art, my interests shifted towards Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitzky and Alexander Rodchenko and it gave me additional reason to visit as the majority of their work were also kept in Russia. In the summer of 2008, after years of failing to convince various friends to accompany me, I decided to make the trip alone as a birthday gift to myself. I made the necessary visa and travel arrangements to go during the Russian summer “White Nights,” when there is abundant sunlight (about 80º F warm weather) and it doesn’t get dark until after 10 or 11pm at night (depending on the latitude.) Due to work constraints, I was just missing the official art festival, White Nights Festival St Petersburg, but I was able to enjoy the long daylight hours by spending most of the regular “daytime” hours in museums and still have the sunny evenings to visit all the outdoor locations, including one outdoor music event in Red Square during the last week of the White Nights in Moscow.

On the fifth evening of my eleven day trip, I found myself heading to Saint Petersburg but wishing I had more time in Moscow. The time and destinations ticked away on the Leningradskiy train station marquee as I stood there nervously waiting for my train to show up. It was getting close to departure time and mine still wasn’t listed. A long list of trains embarking before and after mine were all up there, so I was beginning to wonder if the station agent had sold me a fraudulent ticket. That would be no surprise with the way that everything else seemed to work around there. I had spent an entire afternoon waiting in line, like something out of the book, The Russians. I was the only foreigner in line and I tried to patiently hold my place without causing problems because of my precarious missing paperwork situation. Most of the locals were far more proactive: cutting lines, shouting at each other, jockeying for position when two lines were merged and generally were as aggressive as “Angelinos” from Los Angeles are about driving on the 405 freeway during rush hour. Finally, it was my turn at the window and I was told to go wait in another line that was exclusively for the trains going to St. Petersburg. That was a piece of information I was not told when directed to wait in line and furthermore, there was nothing saying so above the window, but I could not speak Russian and that was probably what the locals discussed every time someone new arrived at the line. Finally, to the front of the correct window, I handed them the piece of paper written by the receptionist at my hotel saying that I wanted one regular fare seat to Leningrad/Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg) on the overnight train.

Now it was close to 1.30am on a Saturday night. The metro was already closed and I had my luggage, which wasn’t much, but it made me standout as a tourist and a target. Clearly I couldn’t pass for being a local, but this was not a good neighborhood and the last thing I needed was to be robbed of all my belongings, which included my passport and travel documents. As I had learned in the five days I spent in Moscow, visas, travel documents and paperwork were not only time consuming commodities to acquire, but paying for replacements could sometimes cost far more than their face value.

My flight from Munich to Moscow had been delayed, so when I arrived at Domodedovo airport close to midnight, I was the only person in the line for foreigners and the immigration window was closed. I was motioned to join the line for “all entries,” which looked like it consisted of mostly Russians and some German businessmen, who probably already had longer term visas. The woman at the desk just stamped my travel visa and passport but failed to mention anything about an entry card that I was also supposed to have. The first hotel asked for my entry card, but since I was only staying there for one night, she said it was okay. However, upon arriving at my primary hotel the next day, the woman at the desk insisted that it was impossible for me to enter without it and even more impossible for me to be in Russia (or exit) without it, despite the fact that I clearly had arrived and entered without the necessary document. She told me it was required for her to send it into the police station and all visitors needed to register within forty-eight hours of arrival. We waited for her supervisor and the shift change later that morning and both of them had the same news. Upon listening to the supervisor explain to me both the requirements and consequences, the Russian girl that was working the second shift started crying and telling me I could get into a lot of trouble if stopped on the street by police. The supervisor told me that they would try and call a few airport contacts to see if there was any way for me to somehow get paperwork under the table, but they also warned that it might cost me quite a bit even if they did find someone who could provide the paperwork. In the mean time, I set off for the US Embassy (on advice from some other travelers who said that it would be a good idea for the embassy to know I was around just in case I did get into trouble.) Having so many other people concerned about my safety worried me, especially since it was coming from Australians, Italians and Russians, who in my experience from traveling, seemed far more laid back about rules than typical Americans, so I guessed that if they were all so worried about my safety, I should be even more so. Off I went to the US Embassy where I was advised that while the law required for me to have an entry card in order to enter, exit and stay within Russia, there was no provision in the law stating what to do in case that card was lost, stolen or (in my case) never issued. There were instances where other Americans had entered and they were out of cards and other situations where traveler’s luggage was either lost or stolen, but all of this seemed to cause bureaucratic hold-ups with no resolutions. They said that the best I could try for was to not run into problems with police for the duration of my trip and hope that the hotels would be cooperative in allowing me to stay without the registration. They also advised that under no circumstances should I overstay my tourist visa and to make sure that when I exited, I did not allow them to retain me or make me miss my flight in which case the penalty might include a large fine and jail sentence. I couldn’t imagine what my chances were for getting out of a Soviet jail and started to contemplate if going to a Russian jail or a Mexican one was worse, but figured it was probably best I avoided finding out. The problem was I clearly looked foreign, which meant I was subject to be stopped on the street at any time to provide proper travel documents. Since I was already in violation of not having the proper documents, I had to be very careful to not draw any more attention to myself.

In the end, I arrived very early to the airport to make sure I would have plenty of time to make it though airport security. It seemed to be the perfect amount of time for the woman at the Russian passport check to yell at me for not having the necessary exit documents to depart, but it was not enough time for them to detain me without causing me to miss my flight. So, as advised by the embassy, I told them the paperwork was lost (as they might not believe me if I told them no one had issued it to me.) I was apologetic and just let them yell at me, but insisted that I needed to make this flight to avoid overstaying my visa. It was embarrassing, but I don’t speak Russian and neither knew what she was saying nor knew any of the people staring at me, so I suppose it was like tripping and scraping my knee a bit; lesson learned, but no serious damage.

Despite the paperwork issue, my trip went relatively smooth. While people on the streets and in the metros seemed hurried, uninterested and not English speaking, the people I did encounter that spoke a bit of English were very nice and went out of their way to be helpful, something critically important in the moments when I had been lost. Most streets and signs are only marked with Cyrillic, so I had to know how each location was spelled in Russian, even though the guidebooks and maps I read were only written with English equivalents of the words. Both hotels accommodatingly allowed me to stay despite the paperwork issue and the hostel in St. Petersburg even placed me in a large, unoccupied room because they said they knew I was a woman traveling alone and they didn’t want me to worry.

Gender issues and the role of women in Russia are subjects that I found interesting. It was a noticeable observation throughout my trip how stunningly beautiful and rail-thin the young Russian women were. They were immaculately groomed, used lots of make-up and were often overtly dressed to be eye-catching, as if they were “camera ready” at a moments notice. The older generation were the exact contrary and very matronly. I’m not sure if social trends changed sharply after the Cold War, so that the new generation of women had different diets and lifestyles that drastically changed their appearance or if there was a harsh transition between life phases, where younger women took care of their appearances until marriage and once married, they had other priorities. I looked for examples of the gap in between the two generations and found few women over thirty that resembled the younger generation. It’s as if women just skipped a graceful transition through middle age. While most of the young women were stunning, the women that seemed in their thirties looked haggard, so I contemplated if their post-marriage roles as wife and mother were the cause. I don’t know if they had education and career opportunities that allowed some independence or if their social status was entirely based on their family and marriage. These were themes of Russian novelists and artists in the 19th Century, but I wonder how much it still holds true for the current generation. (Literature by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Wikipedia and art work of Pavel Fedotov: The Russian Museum – The Mikhailovsky Palace – Room 18.)

One of my primary motivations to visit Russia was to see all of the artwork held there. Much of it is art that has not been exhibited outside of Russia, especially since WWII and the Cold War. I had spent years researching and reading about all the art in Russia and I was still not prepared for the astounding amount of work there. My eleven day visit, with at least part or most of every day visiting a gallery or museum, was not nearly enough to see everything I wanted to see, let alone all that Russia has to offer for art lovers. I didn’t even get to experience any of its wealth in literature, film, dance or other performing arts. Russia has had a profound influence in contemporary art, even predating the Bauhaus and other western movements, and many of the artists that eventually settled in Germany, France or America had Russian origins, but moved as a result of the world wars and revolutions. Wikipedia: Russian artists of the avant-garde. Video about constructivism and Russian avant-garde art: http://youtu.be/mQURCU6jN58. Video of Russian artist, Rodchenko and architect, Shukhov: http://youtu.be/IIxZtJy_rok.


My favorite place in Moscow was the Vladimir Mayakovski museum: State Museum of Majakovskiy, for the Russian poet and playwright that worked closely with Avant- Garde artists of the time, especially Rodchenko. The museum is a multi-story building designed in a post-modern style with 3-D tableaus of his life and literary work. The bookstore includes his literature, as well as posters and artwork of the associated artists in the Russian futurists and constructivism movements.

Another of my favorite museums in Moscow is the New Tretyakov Museum http://www.tretyakovgallery.ru/en/ in particular, the Tretyakov’s separate location with 20th century contemporary art, the “New Tretyakov” Tretyakov building on Krymsky Val located in historic Gorky Park.  Important work by Kasmir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Aleksander Rodchenko, Anna Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Liubov Popova and Vladimir Tatlin are housed there. The State Tretyakov Gallery (20th Century Collection). They also featured a special exhibition on the work and photography of Rodchenko while I was there. Some of the images can be seen online in a traveling exhibition: FT Magazine – Slideshow: Forward march with Alexander Rodchenko.

Alongside the museum is an odd garden, “the graveyard of fallen monuments” Fallen Monument Park with miscellaneous discarded statues. I visited it early in the morning before the museum opened and it was an eerie setting (in a fun way) with a wall of discarded Stalin statue heads and gardens where unapproved or obsolete statues were arranged, including special sections for Stalin, Lenin, various animals and even alien-like figures.

Among the “must see” in Russia is the Pushkin museum, which has a base collection that was originally moved to Moscow from the Hermitage. I was pleasantly surprised by the volume and quality of work housed there and it sparked my interest in artists and styles that I had not previously felt a connection with. The impressionist collections are particularly noteable, especially numerous works by Matisse, Degas, Picasso and Gauguin. There is one pastel work by Degas that I had seen many times in art books, but the intense beauty of the original piece was so breathtaking that I was reluctant to leave the museum because I knew it would be a long time before I could see it again in person. It is such a delicate piece that photos or images cannot convey the same feeling as seeing it in front of you: Pushkin Collections | Degas. There were also several paintings by Gauguin that I had seen in books, but not previously appreciated and their actual scale combined with his brilliant abilities as a colorist also surprised me. Pushkin Collections | AHA OE FEII?Pushkin Collections | VAIRAUMATI TEI OA and Pushkin Collections | EIAHA OHIPA.  They have several works by Matisse, including one of the ones with four goldfish: Pushkin Collections | Matisse Goldfish. And there are some gems in their print collection: Pushkin Collections | Toulouse-Lautrec and Pushkin Collections | O’Galop: Bibendum (Michellin Man kick). Official site with complete collections online: The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

While not a “museum” I also recommend spending a day going to all the significant metro stations as many of them were commissioned to be tributes to important Russian artists and historic figures. Each one is unique and many of them contain mosaics, sculptures and artifacts. Special maps, books and even the free metro guides contain information about the themes of each station. Basic Metro info and links in English: Moscow Metro – Wikipedia. Note: Interior photography is prohibited without permits and there are cameras and people posted to monitor these areas, but you can buy postcards and books with photos. (They make great gifts.) Here is one site in English with photos: Moscow Metro Photos.

St. Petersburg/Petrograd

Puskinaya 10 is a large abandoned building complex in St. Petersburg that was taken over by artists and it currently houses many of the city’s living contemporary artists, various galleries, museums, cafés, bookshops and music stores. Among the notable is the Museum for non-conformist art: http://www.nonmuseum.ru/

The Hermitage is the largest museum in the world in terms of floor space and collections exhibited in a single building and it features the largest collection of paintings in the world. Info about the State Hermitage. (The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex in the world and has the largest total collections of books and works, but it is in several locations and includes the zoo. The Louvre has the largest museum collections, but much of its work is stored and not exhibited.) I spent two full days there and was barely able to see everything. I spent my last afternoon revisiting my favorite areas of contemporary art, but had to rush through most of the areas of the historic palace and decorative art sections in order to do that. Going to the Hermitage is a fantastic art history lesson. It includes pieces from most time periods, ranging from primitive, ethnic, Egyptian and vast amounts of European art. If you are interested in Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, Gauguin and other impressionist and post-impressionist artists, this is a must-do. While most museums in the world might have one or two works by each of these artists, the Hermitage has rooms full of their work and you can see examples of the time periods and transitions in their artistic development. If you plan on going, book your ticket online. I saw another hotel guest that arrived prior to the museum opening, and while I had my printed, pre-booked two-day reservation, he spent half a day waiting in the ticket line that wrapped around the courtyard hours before the museum opened. The State Hermitage Museum Official Site

I also highly recommend the Russian Museum. Initially I planned to go there only because it was open on a day when the Hermitage and other museums were closed (Monday), but I am very thankful for that time as the museum has significant collections and the Benois wing has pieces by all the influential Russian avant-garde artists as well as art of those lesser known in the west. It includes rare and early work by Mikhail Vrubel, Nikoli Milioti, Vasily Vereschagin, Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky. Vereschagin’s pieces date from 1873-1890, and most of his work was not previously exhibited because of their graphic realism, but they seem contemporary in both themes and mannerisms, like painterly precursors to Steve McCurry’s photography in National Geographic. Virtual tour: The Russian Museum- Vereschagin and Vasily Vereshchagin – Wikipedia. The museum’s importance is probably overshadowed by being in such close proximity to the Hermitage, but the volume of art there would be considered significant in any other city. In addition to contemporary art, the museum has an astounding amount of work and artefacts from all periods in Russian history. For me it was an amazing discovery of many artists that are not discussed in the west (possibly because their work has not been published in books outside of Russia, due to the Cold War.) It is the best single museum to view the entire breath of art history, artefacts and creative movements for Russia. The State Russian Museum. The museum also has several other locations in St. Petersburg that house special collections. The Ludwig museum The Ludwig shows the connection between Russian 20th century art and other contemporary movements. Some of the non-Russian artists included in this collection are: Warhol, Koons, Picasso, Lichtenstein, and Baselitz. List of all the Russian Museum locations: Russian Museum locations and gardens. Note: The main museum consists of the Mikhailovsky Palace, The Benois Wing, and The Rossi Wing, which are all connected.

There were lots of museums I did not have time to visit on this trip, but hope to see on the next trip. One is the Moscow Museum of Modern Art with collections in three separate locations in the city: Moscow Museum of Modern Art. The other contemporary collection is an art complex called Vinzavod/Winzavod: WINZAVOD – Moscow Centre for Contemporary Art.

The Moskow Kremlin is a fortress compound of palaces, several cathedrals, multiple churches and historic buildings. There are many museums housed within the walls of the complex, including the collection of Fabergé, armoury, royal and religious art. Federal State Institution “State Historical-cultural Museum-preserve “The Moscow Kremlin”. Outside of the Kremlin is St Basil’s Cathedral, the Lenin Mausoleum and Red Square, which also contain several important sites and museums as well as the beautiful (Alexander) gardens.

The Kremlin even hosts contemporary and international conferences and exhibitions on fashion and design. Red Square Moscow Guide. Official site of the Kremlin: http://www.kreml.ru/en/. I needed another day to visit the main location for the Tretyakov museum, which houses all of its work until the end of the 19th Century. (It’s a separate location from the New Tretakov with 20th Century work.) The State Tretyakov Gallery. I also would have wanted to see a performance at the Bolshoi, but it was under reconstruction when I visited. The Bolshoi Theater Opening | English Russia. Official site (in Russian execept for the contact info at the very bottom): http://www.bolshoi.ru/.

The Russian Planetarium also seemed interesting as Russia has a great history in space studies and travel: http://www.planetarium-moscow.ru/# (In Russian) or contact info in English: Moscow Planetarium.

Many of the websites are not in English, so the link below has a list of Russian museums with links and information in English. The most popular ones are on the first page, but note the 24 pages at the bottom:   http://www.RussianMuseums.Info/.

Both Moscow and St. Petersburg had a surprising range of local cuisine and prices, even for me when I usually only eat vegetarian or fish dishes. There were McDonalds, Hard Rock and several other recognizable international brands throughout Russia, especially in Moscow, but I avoided the American chains to try foods I couldn’t eat so readily at home. One of the Russian “fast food” type meals I liked were the buckwheat blini pancakes that could be ordered with a variety of savory or sweet fillings. Some of my favorites were the ones with wild mushrooms (grybnoy) or salmon roe (ykra) and some places had smoked salmon fillings. The blinis became my cheap go-to meals since they were affordable and I could easily find restaurants that served them.  My second favorite cheap meal was pierogi, which are boiled or fried dumplings filled with a variety of fillings. My favorites were filled with wild mushrooms or mashed potatoes and dill. Both were served steaming hot topped with sour cream and chives. In fact, sour cream (smetana) seemed to be served with most savory and sweet dishes in Russia. For breakfasts I loved kasha, which is a porridge made of wholegrain buckwheat and served with jam. I also loved a type of sweet, deep-fried fritter made of cottage cheese and served with a berry or currant sauce. Russian tea was also very good and served with jam to sweeten instead of sugar or honey. More info about some of the Russian food I tried: Russian Food & Cuisine – waytorussia.net. I reserved part of my travel budget to splurge on a couple of nice restaurants. The luxury end was sky-high and the Beluga caviar was out of my range for the trip, but I was able to try the Kamchatka crab at a specialty restaurant in Moscow.

For non-Russian cuisine, Sushi seemed to be a popular, trendy choice for the young and hip. Although I didn’t try any of them, I saw many Italian and pizza places and there seemed to be many options with a range in prices from fast food to high-end. I also found a several beautiful, gourmet food stores that were worth visiting for their historical locations as well as interesting displays: Eliseevskiy http://eliseevskiy.ru/e_home.htm and Gastronom No. 1 Gastronome №1 (located in GUM in Red Square GUM Red Square.) Both were priced like shopping for food at Harrods or Macys celler, but they also sell affordable ranges of baked goods, sandwiches, yogurt, cheese and other packable foods that I found perfect for carrying around as quick snacks when I visited museums and parks. Other shops can be found in this directory: “Moscow Travellers Yellow Pages, Handbook & Travel Guide,: FOOD STORES”.

There is also a vibrant café culture for people watching, reading and relaxing throughout both cities. One site in Moscow is the historic location of the Perlov tea and coffee shop: Moscow Daily Photo: Tea House on Miasnitskaya Street.

A good overview article for planning a few days with the key Moscow sites: Hemispheres » Three Perfect Days, Moscow.

A basic travel directory that includes links and information for embassies, airports, trains, and visa requirements: Moscow travel guide – Wikitravel.

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