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Icebound in Russia: a Kremlin tour with Giorg


We stood huddled in the bleak underpass, reluctant to move an inch from our multi-bodied cocoon, for fear of the Russian snow storm of death against the fragility of poor British skin. Time soured past with an urgency that mirrored each gust of the blizzard and we knew that somewhere, in the winter wonderland’s evil counterpart above, a man named Giorg was braving the storm to wait for us. He would no doubt be clad in an impenetrable mass of fur lined layers that not only acted as a barrier from the cold, but also ironically evoked former communist ideas of de-individualisation. Our tour had been orchestrated by Alice’s father, who worked with Giorg’s daughter some fifteen hundred miles or so west-bound and despite some trepidation at the prospect of an afternoon with a complete stranger in a country where we spoke very little of the language, we had all agreed to accompany Alice for a trip around the capital. In reality, we had quickly appreciated that our ‘little trip’ would most likely become a serious expedition, possibly requiring some amount of apparatus to propel us through feet of fresh snow and flare guns to signal distress.

One of us let out a shudder that may have been an attempt to thaw the vocal chords, which like every other surface and extremity of our bodies had become rigid with cold. A puff of frozen air lingered above our heads for a few seconds like a cigarette cloud and then faded away. She tried again. “What…tttt…time…..mmeeeting……?” I suspected that everyone had understood her disjointed question but as with true mob mentality, they, like I waited expectantly for someone else to bother answering. It was a futile waste of energy.

Several prolonged minutes later we had somehow managed to surface out to the blinding white terrain, and with eyes scarcely open in resistance against the blizzard, we spotted the only other living being in sight. Awkwardly, like a Roman army shuffling its flanks forward in unison, we trudged the three metres across the snowy bog towards our shapeless stranger. A pair of twinkling eyes composed most of his Grandpa-like face and he surveyed us with what I could only describe as amusement. “Let’s go” he said in gravelly Russian, with no hint of a stammer. This weather was clearly nothing new to him.

Giorg..

At the entrance to the Kremlin there was finally quiet. It was the kind of quiet that is unexpected and makes you want to poke your ears to make sure you haven’t suddenly lost the ability to hear. Out of the wind and snow we heard, really for the first time, Giorg’s voice; lyrical and light, in contrast to his only other comment of the day. He told the attendant the five of us girls were his ‘detee’ or children. Beneath the furry Chapka that buried most of her head, she raised a barely visible eyebrow but didn’t comment. She looked bored. Our way was clear to continue and we did so, with a certain amount of trepidation at entering the home of the mighty and somewhat notorious Russian Government, where once had lived rulers whose names all expanded into titles such as, The Terrible, The Conqueror, The Liberator, The Great, The Proud and The Moneybag. I tried to drag up details from Russian history class, about revolutions and triumphs and tsars long since buried underground (apart from Lenin, who in fact lies preserved in a slightly yellow-tinted oily substance in a glass case on Red Square), and I kicked myself for not having paid enough attention to now pose educated questions to our guide. Once on the inside of the towering walls, we stood anxiously waiting for Giorg to lead the way. This was not a difficult decision to make; the only direction available to us was highlighted by strings of fluorescent rope sourced from pole to pole that directed us like sheep in a bee line towards the centre of the Kremlin. Everywhere we looked were signs ordering strict compliance with all regulations and at every angle in our line of sight stern sentries stood with fixed icy glares that mirrored the weather. They looked as though they just dared us to put a foot outside of the enforced walkway. We didn’t, although I had visions of slipping on ice and inadvertently skidding over the lines, wondering whether I’d be arrested on the spot and sent to Azkaban as a suspected British spy. Just when we were feeling most self-conscious, our little Russian Grandpa linked our arms and inexplicably began to serenade us with little Russian ditties as we continued on through the ancient fortress. Surely the centre of all things Russian and governmental was no place for singing, surely it merited esteem, silent reverence and awe. Giorg was getting quirkier by the minute.

The Kremlin, as we had hoped, was indeed worth a visit. ‘Sobornaya Ploshad’, which means ‘Square of Cathedrals’, was literally exactly as it declares itself. Four ornate and exquisitely decorated cathedrals with gold onion domes hemmed in a paved square that in summer would probably sprout an array of beautiful plants. As it was, against the snowy backdrop, the mere architectural beauty was astounding enough. It made me feel woefully disenchanted by our own British edifices and I briefly considered whether the universal architect was in an especially angular and gothic mood by the time he got to designing England. The cold remained as vicious as it had been in the morning, and not even the beauty of the Kremlin distracted us from the numb sensation of our toes and the painful throb of frozen fingers. We tried to nod enthusiastically as Giorg told us zealous and meticulously detailed historical accounts of this and that, signaling first one direction then another and drawing in the air with bare fingers what I can only imagine were battle strategies. It took all our concentration not to start whimpering. Either that or giggling from the utterly peculiar turn the day had taken.

In fact, we were focusing so hard on what he was saying that all of a sudden we found ourselves standing in an art studio that very much resembled an underground lair with no windows but a mesmerizing display of sculptures covering every inch from floor to flaking ceiling. Giorg introduced a slim, dark haired young man as his son, who was a famous Moscow sculptor. There was a table at which we were directed to sit, that held a colourful assortments of cakes, biscuits, breads, teas, chocolates and sweets and we politely were encouraged to eat, drink and be merry. For the next hour or so we chatted away in disjointed Russian, pointing to particularly intriguing yet striking sculptures which we were then given to hold like prizes, until, estimating a respectable amount of time had passed, we sly lowered them to a space on the table, arms and fingers aching from the immense bronze weight and the lingering effect of the cold. A little later still we were joined by a woman and two tiny children, who were the rest of his family. The children kissed their father and then tottered off to busy themselves in the back room with scraps of clay, molding them like play-dough into charming little figurines and bringing them through to present to the father, who praised their artistic endeavors and encouraged their noticeable budding talent. It was really very endearing to see such a genuine and lovely insight into how affectionate Russian people can be, especially since our reception as foreigners usually encompassed stern frowns of disapproval, and at best, a lukewarm sentiment.

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