Travelling anywhere during the course of a broadcast season is a tricky business at TVO. The requirements of a being in Ontario’s capital city in order to shoot segments for a nightly program don’t permit much travel far afield.
But thanks to a generous executive producer, who let me put a couple of shows in the can, I managed to cash in all my frequent-flyer points and sneak away to Moscow for a Friday-Saturday-Sunday long weekend in early December to visit my son Zach, who is spending several months there doing research for his PhD.
We jammed a remarkable amount of Russian history, culture, and walking around into a relatively short period of time. At nearly 900 years old, and having been the staging ground for two of the 20th century’s most cataclysmic revolutions, Moscow simply has endless things to see.
One of the first things you notice while interacting with Muscovites is how rarely they seem to smile. Zach and I took more than a dozen trips on public transit over the course of the weekend. We had numerous conversations (or attempted ones) with transit employees, ticket takers at museums, police officers, airline ticket attendants, hotel employees — in other words, the people who are normally the goodwill ambassadors of any city’s tourism industry. And with few exceptions, most people were simply grim. Others were outright hostile and seemed to enjoy bossing us around.
Cheerleaders are not something you'd see at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. But they were a fixture throughout the HC Spartak Moscow game.
The Hockey Museum of Moscow features a 1972 Team Canada jersey autographed by Dennis Hull, Paul Henderson, Rod Gilbert, and Ron Ellis.
A Soviet hockey jersey from the 1972 Summit Series worn by celebrated Moscow-born forward Alexander Yakushev.
Some estimate Muslims represent up to 15 per cent of Russia's population. This new mosque can hold up to 10,000 worshippers.
Interior of a Moscow synagogue. One rabbi I spoke to says he believes this may be a golden age for Jewish revival in Moscow.
But Moscow has too many wondrous things to see to be overly deterred by such things. To see the spectacularly colorful onion domes of the more than 450-year-old St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is to be overwhelmed by beauty. And when a men’s quartet began singing in the upper level of the church, you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing the voices of angels from on high.
Behind the walls of the Kremlin, one finds other centuries-old cathedrals, each more beautiful than the next: the Assumption Cathedral, where Russian tsars were crowned; the Annunciation Cathedral, the home church of princes and tsars; and the Archangel’s Cathedral, the final resting place for several princes and tsars, including Ivan the Terrible.
We went to the Kremlin Armoury Chamber, where one can find the gown Catherine the Great wore at her coronation in 1762 and Ivan the Terrible’s ivory throne. If you’re a history nut as we both are (or I suppose even if you’re not), seeing these invaluable pieces of history is simply breathtaking.
We saw an opera (in Russian) at the nearly 200-year-old Bolshoi Theatre, which, like so many other things in Moscow, is a glory to behold. There are six levels of balconies at the theatre, and the applause must have gone on for five minutes as even the minor stars of the show came out for individual bows — a Russian tradition, I’m told.
No trip would be complete without seeing some hockey (we are, as Don Cherry would say, good Canadian boys, after all), and so I saw my first Kontinental Hockey League game. Considered the second-best hockey league in the world, behind the National Hockey League, the KHL has almost as many teams as its North American counterpart. While 21 of the 27 teams are in Russia, there are also teams in Belarus, China, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Slovakia. In fact, the all-star game will be held in Kazakhstan next month, and Zach and I were both wondering how the sometimes -30 C temperatures in Astana would compare to the NHL’s all-star festivities in Tampa, Florida, two weeks later. A different experience, we’re guessing.
We went to an HC Spartak Moscow home game, and pretty quickly we realized we weren’t at the Air Canada Centre. First of all, there were scantily clad cheerleaders in the aisles dancing throughout the game. Second, the fans didn’t boo; they whistled when they were upset (I first learned of that phenomenon when watching the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union). Third, during breaks in the action, again, scantily clad women came out to clean up the ice, then upon departing, blew kisses to the crowd. And fourth, the atmosphere in the rink was more like a soccer game than hockey game. There was a claque sitting in one end zone constantly chanting fight songs, banging drums, and waving flags, as you’d see at a Toronto FC match. And during the iconic Russian national anthem (which I fell in love with upon hearing it for the first time as the Soviet anthem in 1972), fans held up their scarves, arms apart, displaying their pride in the home team’s colours.
The quality of play is pretty good, although not at NHL levels. There’s less hitting and fewer slap shots, but the game does feature classic Soviet-style hockey with multiple swift passes, fast skating, and no dumping the puck into the attacking zone.
I recognized the name of one player — Sergei Kostitsyn; of the visiting Nizhny Novogorod Torpedo — who once played for the Montreal Canadiens and the Nashville Predators. And there was only one North American player on either team: Spartak’s Ben Maxwell, who played a handful of games for four different NHL teams over five seasons.
The Hockey Museum of Moscow is across the road from the Spartak home arena, and if you’ve been to the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto, you might find the Russian version underwhelming. There are precious few displays, although I was interested to see an exhibit dedicated to the 1972 Summit Series. There was even a Team Canada jersey, autographed by Dennis Hull, Paul Henderson, Rod Gilbert, and Ron Ellis. (Ellis has been my favorite NHL player for almost 50 years, and when I emailed him the picture of his autograph on the jersey in the museum, he emailed back his thanks for letting him know).
If it’s not too nerdy to say, one of the most fascinating aspects of the trip was riding Moscow’s excellent subway system, and not only because of how remarkably extensive it is. The transit map looks like a plate of spaghetti with its 15 intersecting rail lines. Also, whereas Toronto only recently opened its Union-Pearson Express, connecting the subway system with an express train to the airport, Moscow has had multiple express trains connecting its public transit system with three of Moscow’s four airports for a decade. They’re clean, efficient, and inexpensive, and they run frequently.
But the subway system is also truly a marvel because each station looks like a museum of Russian history. Mosaics or statues of Vladimir Lenin, the father of the Russian Revolution, are omnipresent; so is artwork depicting hardy Soviet peasants achieving their agricultural quotas and the iconic hammer and sickle from Soviet times. While some of the former Soviet Union’s iconography has been airbrushed out of Russian history (Stalingrad is now called Volgograd, after all), the decision was made to retain all of this now rejected history in the subway.
One of the biggest takeaways I left Moscow with was the notion of how multicultural the city (and country) truly are. I grew up during the height of the Cold War, when we regarded the Soviet Union as a monolithic bastion of atheism. How interesting, therefore, to see a capital city teeming with Russian Orthodox churches, and to learn that Muslims make up as much as 15 per cent of Russia’s population. Not only that, but a conversation with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi revealed that this may be the golden age for Jewish revival in Moscow. President Vladimir Putin (who announced his intention to seek another term just a few days after we left) has apparently ushered in much improved relations with the Jewish community, and even attends Jewish-related events. He has even toured the superb Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre. Given Russia’s appalling history of anti-Semitism and pogroms, this is an astonishing and most welcomed development in Moscow Jewish circles.
We didn’t see two things that are typically on every tourist’s wish list: Vladimir Lenin’s and Joseph Stalin’s tombs. The lineups were too long and the hours of availability too short. But that’s okay. As I always tell my kids: best not to see everything on your trip because after all, you want a reason to return.
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