You might be expecting that living in Moscow you get bored with the snow, the snow machines, the cold, the snow machines, the ice rinks, the snow machines, the snowmen and the snow.
And if you ask my Jaded Big Brother, you might be right. He is a bit over layering up to go out. At least until he and Mama have a snowball fight or we go sledging. Again. Plus, he’s just realised he gets to do skiing as part of his PE classes at school soon. Coooooooooool.
I, on the other hand, really like winter in Russia. Apart from the possibility of seeing snow machines there are outings like the time we went to see the Moscow Ice Festival out in Victory Park on Poklonnaya Hill.
Icy Moscow is a collection of ice sculptures specially carved from large blocks of ice brought in from some of the lakes around Russia.
Baikal is particularly famous for the quality of its ice, for example.
You can even sit on some of them!
But not just sculptures! When we arrived, we found there were also ice slides to go whooshing down, with large padded crash zones at the bottom in case you got really wizzy. Which we didn’t, initially, as we were motoring by the seat of our overtrousers alone. But then Mama gave in and bought us another plastic toboggan tray for extra slipperyness. Totally worth it, and highly recommended.
There’s an even more impressive sliding experience somewhere off to the back but, say it with me, we had to pay extra, so we didn’t. We did, however, find a sculpture carved in the shape of a barrel that you could get inside and slide around in, in defiance of any kind of health and safety caution.
If you get hungry or a bit chilly there are plenty of little stalls about selling warming hot drinks and food.
And at night they light it all up!
So when is it? Well, even in Moscow, the sort of weather you can maintain large ice sculptures in is not the something you can guarantee will last and last, so they time the Moscow Ice Festival to coincide with the New Year holidays. Which means December 29th to January 9th.
And of course, 2018 being the year of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, this year the Ice Festival will see ice sculptures representing the different countries attending, and not just reproducing the capital of Russia and various animals in transparent cold melty glass.
Are you ready to see the Eiffel Tower (if not the leaning Tower of Pisa) carved entirely out of ice? Doubtless we will be going, so watch this space.
Not last winter but the winter before, we had our first ice skating experience on the open air ice rinks in Moscow, and we picked what Mama is certain is the very best, the one at VDNH. This weekend we set foot on the ice for the first time since then. VDNH was great but it turns out that falling awkwardly when you are an adult can be a lot more damaging than you might think.
Still, all better now, and Mama has decided that this is the year we will all find out ice legs properly. We are starting less ambitiously this time on one of the small local rinks. Mama managed to stay upright for a whole hour! Mainly because she shouted ‘don’t touch me!’ every time we got close. My Optimistic Big Brother fell over a lot, but remained undaunted! I insisted on a penguin, and so I got on the best of all of them. Me and my cold friend were whizzing all over the ice by the end. But if you continue reading you can find out how this differed the first time round, and why we still totally recommend this ice rink.
Mama has been putting off going ice skating on one of the open air rinks in Moscow.
She says it is because this winter has been unsatisfactory. Outdoor ice skating in Russia’s capital, she says, should be undertaken when the temperature is determinedly at minus 10 or lower, and with huge piles of snow surrounding you on all sides and, preferably, falling from above too.
We had about three weeks of that just after New Year. It was great.
Since then the thermometer has barely got below zero and while it has snowed, sometimes energetically, it has also rained quite a bit, and in Mama’s stated opinion, one should NOT have to wade through slush and one SHOULD have to put on skates to take a slide past some of the iconic sights on Red Square, VDNH, Gorky Park or similar.
This, however, is nonsense.
Mama’s real reason for not taking us ice skating was fear.
I attribute this to her twice breaking her arm aged seven due to the terribly dangerous activity of falling over a bit awkwardly while running around outside and then falling over a bit awkwardly having just recovered from the first fracture. Since then, anything that might involve falling over has not really struck her as something fun.
It’s not the anticipation of pain, it’s the anticipation of sitting staring moodily at your friends playing outside for half a year while you scratch under your plaster with a knitting needle.
Foremost among Mama’s most mistrusted sports, then, are roller skating, rollerblading, downhill skiing and ice skating. Under normal circumstances she cannot be doing with any of them.
But here we are in Moscow, Russia for the foreseeable future and outdoor ice skating is one of the things you have to do when it’s too cold to go to outdoor yoga classes. And Mama decided that the sooner we get started, the sooner we might actually get good enough to enjoy ourselves a little bit. She doesn’t want us to end up being forced to stand at the edge holding everybody else’s coats pretending we are too cool for that sort of thing because of the deficiencies of our English heritage.
So there we were at the end of the ice skating season, biting the bullet and heading off towards Mama’s first choice for an ice skating venue, VDNH, which has for two years now held the title of most extensive outdoor ice skating complex in the WORLD, and has an array of striking buildings to distract you from the wobbling.
UPDATE: Still the biggest, two years later, apparently. Come on Canada, surely you can take the Russians?
Anticipation was high (me and my Optimistic Big Brother), trepidation was rampant (Mama) and it was business for usual for the man who regards outdoor winter sports as something to be endured as part of the PE programme at school (Papa).
It has to be said that for the first half of the experience, Mama was really not enjoying it, and my Increasingly Less Optimistic Big Brother and I were not far behind her.
There is a children’s rink where you can pilot some penguins around and get your ice legs, and there is also an option to hire a tutor for an hour to help you take your first steps. We, of course, did neither of these, just blithely hired the skates and flung ourselves onto the main expanse of ice, where we promptly fell over. Except Papa, who was annoyingly good.
We then spent a long long looooooooooong time, making our way round the edges of the skating track, clutching desperately at the barriers in order to stay on our feet and hating every minute of it. By the time we got to the farthest end, we were ready to go home. At which point we realised that going to the most extensive outdoor ice skating rink in the WORLD has its drawbacks and one of those is that there is a considerable way to go before you can get back to the place where you left your shoes.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are exits and entrances all around, and we could probably have flagged down one of the skaters in VDNH jackets who are obviously there to make sure that all is ok with the ice and its inhabitants, but there is a not unreasonable expectation that you will at least be able to complete one circuit and so the builders of the rink do not provide you with walkways around the sides so you can stagger back overland.
There are, however, places to sit down, as well as a wealth of cafes and even toilets that you can access from the ice. And after a brief pause to loll about on one of the on-ice benches and eat oranges, things started to get better. My Suddenly More Optimistic Again Big Brother developed a style of running on ice which made him happy if not much more upright, and Mama put on her big girl pants and let go of the side rails, which meant that she and Papa could now tow me along at a glide between them, which was almost (almost) fun.
To celebrate reaching the half way point we stopped and had hot chocolate, a drink which is usually inexplicably rarer than you might expect in a country which a) is cold in winter b) likes children and c) thinks that children consuming cold drinks in anything less than 30 degrees centigrade above freezing will addle their insides.
Fortified by my favourite beverage, we managed to complete the final circle in style, and then Mama decided to throw caution to the winds and go round again all by herself.
And there, on the ice, sailing reasonably eptly along in the open air in a location she thinks of as one of the coolest in Moscow, Mama decided that the whole moving countries project was TOTALLY worth it. She has completed a bucket list she never new she had and the rest of her life will be downhill from here on in. Sort of thing.
At which point she fell over, naturally.
And then she fell over again, because she found my By Now Positively Giddy With Optimism Big Brother half way round, insisted they held hands while gliding incautiously fast, and got taken down by my Actually Protesting This Quite Loudly Big Brother and nearly wrenched her left shoulder out of its socket.
Luckily it only took a week (actually, it was a year in the end) for her to be able to lift her arm above her head again, so it does not seem to have put her off (it totally put heroff. For, you know, a bit).
The open air ice skating at VDNH has just reopened for the 2017/2018 season, and ignoring the somewhat dull weather in these photos, Mama guarantees it will be fabulous as long as you do NOT try to hold your children’s hands once they have reached a certain age and weight category until they are actually able to skate reasonably competently. Or you are.
Price: 450 roubles to 650 roubles for adults and 200 roubles to 400 roubles for kids in 2017/2018.
By public transport: For the Metro, you want the orange line, station ‘VDNH’. If you are on the first wagon from the centre, head for the nearest exit. There are a huge number of buses, trams and trolleybuses which also stop here, and the monorail too.
By car: Actually, I reckon there is parking. Somewhere.
So there was Mama somewhere at the back-end of the 90s standing in St Petersburg watching the unveiling of a new monument and feeling a nagging existential discomfort. This ate away at her for a while until she realised that the reason she was discombobulated was that the statue was not by Zurab Tsereteli.
There was no better sign that she was no longer in Moscow. For at that time Georgian born artist Tsereteli was being almost exclusively commissioned by the then Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, to sort Russia’s capital out with all sorts of little (and not so little) embellishments for the capital.
From the reconstructed Christ the Saviour cathedral, through an exceptionally tall memorial to the second world war in Victory Park and clowns outside the Nikulin circus to the Manege shopping mall next to the Kremlin and a whole host of other projects big and small, Zurab Tsereteli was involved as an architect, sculptor or artist and his style was unmistakable.
That said, Zurab Tsereteli has had a very successful career selling sculptures in all sorts of places since his beginnings as a designer of one of the immortal bus stops in the Soviet Bus Stop book, which now has a second volume out! That’s Christmas sorted then.
He’s had projects all over Russia and the former Soviet Union and also in Spain, Uruguay, Italy, Greece and the UK. This one is in… wait for it… France. Only bigger.
His ten-story teardrop sculpture to 9/11 (actually called ‘to the struggle against world terrorism’) is installed in Bayonne, New Jersey (Mama forgot to take a photo of the mock up of that one. Google it).
He is phenomenally wealthy and was once married to a princess. This isn’t her; Mama just likes it. The sculpture is of a famous Georgian dancer in reality, and now installed in Georgia. Only bigger.
His crowning glory, though, was undoubtedly the giant statue of Peter the Great, now installed on the Moscow River. It’s the 8th biggest statue in the world and something of an acquired taste. Legend has it that it was actually supposed to be a statue of Christopher Columbus and destined for the US. The US refused to take it on, and so Tsereteli removed the head, stuck one of Peter I on, and sold it to Moscow.
Which is bollocks, probably (says Mama). Tsereteli did indeed have difficulty pitching a giant statue of Christopher Columbus to the US but, never one to give up on a sale, he’s been shopping it around ever since and it recently found a home in Puerto Rico. A snip at 16 million dollars. The one here is a preparatory model. The one in Puerto Rico is much much bigger. Bigger, in fact, than the Statue of Liberty. As is Peter.
You can see the similarity, of course. But it’s not the same statue.
Here is a photo of Luzhkov (on the left) looking satisfied with a job well done.
Zurab Tsereteli’s stranglehold on sculpture in Moscow may have been loosened with the downfall of Luzhkov in 2010, but he has not entirely lost his artistic clout, although what saved Peter the Great from being dismantled and summarily shipped off to the reluctant St Petersburg was the new mayor’s discovery of just how much this would cost, apparently.
Now in his 80s, Tsereteli is still the president of the Russian Academy of Arts. He is linked to one of the Russian themepark projects currently proceeding apace (wheeeeee!). His private collection formed the basis of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. And although the MMOMA is now state-run, one of the buildings that forms this art collective is the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum dedicated to his works.
Mama’s google fu seems to suggest it is also his former home, and definitely a mansion house once belonging to the Gorbunovs, before it was requisitioned by the Soviets.
That’s where Mama took us recently.
Well, look, the outside of the building is enough to entice anyone inside, surely?
Although when we got in the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum we were shown straight back out again into the courtyard, where there are a lot of sculptures.
As well as a lot of mock ups of some of Tsereteli’s bigger statues elsewhere, Mama was surprised to discover that she was not as au fait with the Tsariteli oeuvre as she thought she was – she hadn’t realised that the mosaic animal sculptures at the Moscow Zoo are his.
Mama was also very taken with this one. Obviously this is because both me and my Judoka Big Brother participate in judo, although I don’t know what the tiger has to do with anything.
But the thing about Tsereteli is that just as you are writing him off, he produces things like these statues of Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, which Mama do think have a certain something.
And this. It’s part of a Holocaust memorial. In the original there is a queue of such figures, who stretch back and back and back and gradually become less distinct as individual people and slowly disappear into the ground. Mama considers it quite well done, and to support this view is the fact that people thought it was so upsetting that it was moved from its initial position at the very front of Victory Park to somewhere a bit less inclined to make them feel uncelebratory.
But there are these cool metal flowers too.
And this, which needs no words.
It was about now that I started to feel decidedly overwhelmed with weird shapes, animals and people, because if there is one thing that the courtyard isn’t, it’s carefully curated, and so I demanded to go somewhere a bit less busy.
Inside was nice and warm, and mostly focused on better organised collections of paintings. Tsereteli likes his paintings as his sculptures, if not in actual size then in the bold primary colours, thick thick layers of oil paint and unsubtle shapes he favours. Apparently, Tsereteli hung out with people like Picasso, Chagall and Dali in his youth, and Mama thinks he still does.
Sometimes this works better than at other times. Mama likes these.
But for the areas you enjoy, the gallery is certainly generous with its comfortable seating, accompanied by a coffee table filled with a selection of books telling you more about Zurab Tsereteli’s life and works.
One thing Mama does not understand is why every single person, and Tsereteli does do people a lot, looks miserable. This seems something at odds with his choice of colour palette.
And the title of this series, ‘for my grandsons’, is frankly odd.
Although Tsereteli must have a bit of a thing for clowns. He has a large number of works inspired by Charlie Chaplin. And a photo of him with Charlie Chapin’s granddaughter.
There are photos of him with all sorts of other people too.
Not disturbing at all was the welcome of the staff, who clocked Mama fairly quickly and switched to competent English. They also let us choose a complimentary greetings card on our way out, presumably for being children with discerning taste in museum galleries.
Mama also recommends a visit to the toilet (you’ll see why) and the cafe in the grounds of the Georgian Orthodox church next door to the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum. Georgian food is one of Moscow’s little pleasures.
And if you haven’t had enough of Tsereteli, he has an art gallery in Moscow too. There’s a sculpture of an apple there (giant, natch). I expect we’ll find our way there sooner rather than later.
Opening: 11am to 7pm Monday to Sunday, Tuesday 1pm – 9pm, closed third Monday every month.
Admission: Adults, 250 roubles; kids of seven and over 100 roubles; kids under 7, free.
Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Barrikadnaya (purple line) and Krasnopresnanskaya (brown line). Look for the entrance to the Moscow Zoo (you can’t miss it). Instead of going in, follow the wall to the left round to the back of the zoo and you definitely can’t miss the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum.
There are the soaring brick-red walls sloping high up one side, protecting the Kremlin. These are cornered by the thin round (red) towers, topped with big ruby-red stars. In front of that there’s the squat blocky browny-red building you aren’t allowed to get to close to because the mummy called Lenin is inside, and the long lines of stone steps fanning out either side. At the back end is the Gothic blood-red splendour of the State Historical Museum. Next to that there’s a small coral church, and then all down the other side is a surprisingly unred beige affair, also fairly burdened with busy architectural detailing, inside which you can find the former State Department Store GUM.
And best of all, at the front, there is the riot of colour, thankfully with red to the fore, that is St Basil’s cathedral.
Actually, Mama says that St Basil’s isn’t even called St Basil’s, technically speaking. But then she also claims that Red Square is so named because ‘red’ and ‘beautiful’ have the same root in Russian, rather than because of the scarlet nature of its surroundings. I say it’s only a matter of time before someone overrules her and paints GUM a soothing shade of pink. Mama counters with the information that Stalin already did this when he switched the previously whitewashed Kremlin walls to painted red on precisely these grounds.
She leaves out the fact that the walls are, underneath the paint, red brick.
Of course, at night, they light GUM up… yellow.
But on my first visit, it was midday in August. And after what felt like three thousand hours, we were only just in the centre, and wilting in the blazing sunlight.
Red Square is huge, very open, and covered in extraordinarily hard-to-walk-on cobbles. Which also have mysterious straight lines in different colours painted all over them.
Mama reckons they are either for organising parades or to guide the erection of stages for some concert or other, which are the two things that Red Square is for when it isn’t covered by people in what pass for wide smiles in Russia (or, for the foreigners, fur hats with ear flaps) standing around mugging for the cameras in front of the stuff round the edges.
It’s so hot and so exposed that the only time Mama has ever found Red Square a nice place to hang out in the height of summer was on her wedding day, when she indulged in the Russian custom of taking her big white dress and her wedding party out for a stroll around all the most photogenic spots in town. Yes, Mama, too, clearly has hankerings after princessdom, for all her eyebrow-raising at my insistence on wearing my poufy pink tutu skirt to the playground, and her wedding photos therefore include shots of her daintily swigging champagne in front of brightly coloured onion domes in a large Disneyesque ballgown. Cool.
Not that the cobbles are any easier to walk on in the middle of a blizzard. Or when they are slick with rain. It’s a bit of a slog in almost any weather. Although they do have a skating rink and a New Year/ Christmas market to liven things up in winter.
I dunno, I made Papa pick me up around now and did the rest of the walk in comfort.
After a brief break while we did our own photography shoot, we resumed our hike towards St Basil’s. Mama thought we might enjoy scrambling around it.
She was wrong. In my then four-year-old case.
St Basil’s is an odd kind of structure. It started when a tsar, promisingly called Ivan the Terrible, started tacking churches onto an existing structure every time he won a battle in a spat he was having with a neighbour. Having sealed Moscow’s supremacy over increasingly large parts of Russia, he decided to set the thing in stone. The architect he commissioned did not just slavishly replace the original wooden buildings, but the best that most people can say about the end result is that it is ‘unique’. There is a story that the same architect had his eyes put out by the apparently very aptly-named tsar so he could not build anything similar again. I think this is going a bit far. It’s not THAT bad.
I can’t blame the gaudiness on the bad taste of the builders though. Apparently that came about when Russians discovered new pigments a couple of hundred years later. The original was much more inclined towards just showing off this exciting new building material called (red) ‘brick’, which, incidentally, is how the Kremlin came to be surrounded by the stuff. The whitewash was to disguise this fact. Because traditionally, kremlins in Russia are white stone.
Anyway, later restorations have stuck to the more vibrant colourscheme, with just a few areas and a model on the inside to show how it might have looked before they emptied the paintbox all over it. Mama, who is clearly a very lapsed protestant, approves of the murals inside no matter how modern. It’s like, she says, someone took the illuminations from the margins of medieval manuscripts and extended them all over the walls and ceilings. Nice.
And even I have to say that the outside is certainly a cheerful sight. Mama says it’s easy to speculate that such brightness is needed in the winter to perk people up through the gloom. But then, she adds, you get to the depths of February, and the skies are a bright blue, the sun is shining down and bouncing off the plentiful white snow, and St Basil’s then moves from being merely loud to almost unbearably dazzling.
But it isn’t my artistic sensibilities which made our visit a trial. No, it’s the nature of the inside. There are Orthodox churches which have wide open spaces inside, but St Basil’s is more of the style of a collection of intimate chapels spread across several levels, with small connecting passageways and even more claustrophobic twisting staircases. And it’s very dark, with few windows and dim artificial lighting. Oddly enough, this only makes the gold leaf richness of the iconostases stand out even more. All this gave me the willies. Mama did not help by following us up the stairs making ghost noises. Nor did the male voice choirette, whose traditional chanting from an indeterminate location added yet another layer of spook.
I spent the visit clutching anxiously at Papa’s trouser legs.
After the terror of St Basil’s, I congratulate Mama on her decision to leave visiting Lenin’s mausoleum for another few years. I reckon there’s a definite judgement call to be made in deciding when your children will happily celebrate the ghoulishness of going to look at an actual dead body in an almost blacked-out room surrounded by fully armed guards who will be abrupt if you pause to try to take a better look, or, heaven forbid, talk, or whether they will have nightmares for six months as a result. The smell is something too. Mama says. This does mean that you don’t get to see all the other graves built into the walls of the Kremlin, but Mama feels that sightseeing can be a bit full of looking at the headstones of dead people as it is. And the chances of my having any idea of who they might be are slim, so I am good with missing out.
Instead, both Mama and I recommend a visit to GUM. It is, these days, a luxury mall, not quite as out there in terms of outrageous conspicuous consumption as its sister round the corner TsUM, but nevertheless not somewhere you are going to want to go and shop at unless you actually like spending more on a Hermes tie than you would back home. But it’s a lovely space. Built well before this Revolution everybody keeps talking about, it is something of an engineering marvel, with it’s impressive curved glass roof topped with even more impressive glass domes, which have withstood not only time but also huge amounts of snow being dropped on them every year. Mama says you should spend a lot of time both looking up and going up, because the galleries and bridges overlooking the central spaces, and the way they interact are also rather attractive.
Mama also thinks the cafes on the overhangs on the top floor look rather fun, not least because in summer they mist the air around the tables with a fine spray of water in order to try to counterbalance the lack of air conditioning. Seems to work. We did not find the atmosphere inside oppressive, despite the glass roof and the excessive heat outside. If you don’t fancy that, there is at least one excellent ice cream kiosk near the main southern entrance, which will allow you to indulge in a Muscovite tradition. Especially if you have one in winter. Mama likes the pistachio or melon flavoured cones. I’d go for the strawberry ones myself.
Other than that, there’s usually something to look at in GUM, like the window displays of idealised life from back when this was the biggest and most well-stocked Soviet department store, or the carpet of flowers down the left hand aisle. Aside from all the things in the shops.
Basically, this is the space I enjoyed roaming out of the three available on Red Square. Although if you there is now Zaryadye Park to hang out in next door, which is almost as good.
Still. You can keep your historical monuments, your mummies and your unshaded urban courtyards. Shopping malls. That’s where it’s at. Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though.
Opening: Red Square is closed when Lenin’s Mausoleum is open, which is Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10am to 1pm. Red Square is also closed for selected public holidays depending on whether it is being used for some kind of display. You can usually get a view of square from the corners even if it is closed.
St Basil’s is open daily 11am to 6pm in summer and 11am to 5pm in winter.
Price: Red Square is free. Lenin’s Mausoleum is free and St Basil’s is 350 roubles for adults and 60 roubles for children over 7. 150 roubles for a photography pass.
Getting there: The nearest metro station is Okhotny Ryad (red line, with connecting stations on the green and dark blue lines called Tverskaya and Ploshad Revolutsii respectively), which, if you get the exit right, brings you up just behind the square on the other side of the State Historical Museum. Head for the (restored) gates with the small chapel set into them.
Mama is not sure that Disney should have allowed their Russian language film project to be called Posledniy Bogatyr (Последний Богатырь). This is because it is difficult to translate.
The choices in the English language speaking world seem to be between the Last Warrior, which sounds inappropriately militaristic, The Last Knight, which is better in terms of thematic relevance and all but conjures up all the wrong visual images, and the Last Hero, which has already been taken.
I mean, you wouldn’t call samurai anything else, would you? And a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr, and particularly so in this film, which is a romp though some of Russia’s best loved fairy tales.
Of course, Disney might not be planning an English language release. I mean, they’d have to dub it or something! Still.
The hero of the Last Warrior is Ivan (of course he is), a modern Muscovite who is a magician and a con man who gets unexpectedly dumped in a magical fantasyland version of Russia, and finds himself responsible for saving the day (of course he does).
As the Last Knight goes about establishing his backstory, there are all sorts of pleasing Moscow references such as him living in what looks like a swish apartment in the high-rise complex of Moscow city (an extremely good choice for his character, given that the reputation of the development is mostly built on smoke and mirrors, and everyone in Moscow knows it). He’s the star of a reality TV show. He has encounters with difficult babushkas and his salt-of-the-earth middle-aged housekeeper. He also gets into trouble with VIP Russians and their bouncers, and ends up being chased around a shopping mall with a giant water slide complex inside. And look out for the gratuitous Putin reference.
Mama thinks somebody had a lot of fun with this section. The Last Hero may have been backed by Disney, but it is really driven by a Russian production company, Yellow, Black and White, who are responsible for a number of hit TV sit coms in Russia. Programmes which have also provided both the lead hero, played by Viktor Khorinyak, and the lead villain, played by Ekaterina Vilkova. The local knowledge really shows.
Not that this means that only Russians or people very familiar with Russian culture can enjoy the Last Bogatyr. Yes, if you know your Slavic folklore you will be happily anticipating certain entrances and appreciate the way that Russian fairy tale tropes are dealt with, including the way that this provides a plot twist that Mama, at least, did not see coming. But Slav fairy tales are not that dissimilar to folklore the world over, and the Last Warrior makes no real assumptions about its audience’s familiarity with the stories; each character is introduced carefully, and the plot itself is wholly new. Or at least as new as it can be given the genre.
So was it any good?
Well, the landscape that the heroes spend their time trekking through is lovely. High altitude meadows filled with wildflowers, oak trees and pine forests all around, babbling streams and frosty mountains looming in the distance. Mama was even moved to look up where the Last Knight was shot, and apparently it was actually filmed on Russian territory, down by Sochi and a bit further across in the Caucuses. She can only assume that this bit was sponsored by the Southern Russia Domestic Tourism Board.
Also, Mama and I are both agreed that it is pretty cool that the three most competent people in the film are women. The youngest of these, Vasilysa, (Mila Sivatskaya) is, in fact, the muscle for the band of heroes. She gets to attack people expertly with swords and wear reasonably sensible clothes for a fighting woman in fantasy land (looking not dissimilar to a certain Rey of Star Wars fame to be honest). Sivatskaya also managed the difficult job of allowing Vasilysa’s more vulnerable side to give a bit of verisimilitude to her inevitable attraction to Ivan.
There’s a couple of really good fight scenes and horse chases of the sort that if you enjoy those scenes in the Pirates of the Caribbean, you will almost certainly appreciate the ones in the Last Hero. It is certainly the sort of thing that Mama goes to the cinema for. The problem she had here was that the camerawork in these moments favoured close up jerky movements cutting swiftly between different angles and all the characters involved, which detracted from her appreciation of the action a bit in places. As in, she couldn’t actually see it.
Possibly it was part of the obvious strategy of making the movie as whole family friendly as possible. Blood and gore was decidedly not in evidence, and the fights were inventive in demonstrating the ways to overcome your enemy without actually dismembering them. Or, in fact, killing them even a little bit. I liked this. I’d been a bit dubious about going to see a film about Baba Yaga. In Mama’s old book of fairy takes from around the world the story of Vasilysa and Russia’s archetypal witch is among the most hair-raising. This, in a book written in the seventies, when Granny was irretrievably eaten by the wolf, and the other wolf boiled alive by the pigs. Sort of thing.
And Baba Yaga doesn’t really improve when you get in amongst the Russians and hear more.
Nothing of that sort here. In fact Papa grumbled a bit that Koschei the Immortal (Konstantin Lavronenko), usually Baba Yaga’s equal in undying menace, was a bit lacking in both manic evil cackling or fighting prowess. Mama, on the other hand, rather liked the calm world-weariness he projected in what is otherwise quite a melodramatic movie, and my Excitable Big Brother thought he was The Best.
Mama liked Baba Yaga best, played by Elena Yakovleva, despite her seven-year old misgivings. Of course she did. Mama is… getting… older… and rather appreciated the fact that two of the more important characters are not, let’s just say, in their first blush of youth. Baba Yaga is extremely grumpy, wants to eat Ivan, and is a master of magic potions and magic creature seduction.
Fabulous, and the latter scenes a relatively neat way to reference the apparent preference of fairy tales around the world to make everything about sex with nubile young women, without, actually, making it about sex with nubile young women. Especially when the Last Bogatyr turned the whole stereotype on its head. Although Mama would probably have cut that plotline out altogether. She suspects some of the scriptwriters of taking their research into folk tales and clear determination to reference nearly all of them too seriously.
Still, at least it wasn’t scary.
As for the rest of the cast, Khorinyak as Ivan manages the journey from being a bit of a cad to a true big-hearted bogatyr hero well, and is also able to handle the physical humour of the role. As for Vilkova, as the evil queen she was suitably implacable and menacing, a dab hand with a bow and arrow, had great hair and turned into a giant white badass owl. What more could you want? In your FACE Harry Potter.
There were actual laugh out loud moments, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think in things that are billed as comedies. And there was at least one joke which the adults found funnier than the kids, which was nice for them. But we all thought the business with Koschei and the rock was hysterical.
But most impressive as a recommendation is that Papa, who is extraordinarily fussy about films, liked it, his quibble about a toothless Koschei notwithstanding. I’ll be honest, this is as rare as an extremely rare thing, and it makes no difference usually whether the movie is Russian, English, French or Japanese.
Of course, he was running a fever.
Anyway, let’s hope that the broad hint that a sequel could be forthcoming pays off. The Last Warrior seems to have done decent business at the box office and been reasonably well received by the critics, so it may well. That’ll give you, what, a year or so to learn Russian so you can enjoy it all too. Although if you are in Germany, it comes out on 19th November. Go for it.
And in case you can’t access it any other way, here is a trailer with English subtitles. Enjoy!
Photocredit: Mama has shamelessly used a couple of interesting pictures she found lying around on the internet to promote this Disney film, a service for which she is not receiving any form of compensation whatsoever. However, if she should not be using these pictures, she is very willing to take them down.
The problem with visiting Anglican cathedrals is that you spend a lot of time bending awkwardly backwards so you can stare at the ceiling. Ely Cathedral is no exception to this, although there is plenty to see at less crippling angles.
Notably the stained glass windows.
In fact, to celebrate this, Ely Cathedral has a stained glass museum. Which we didn’t go to (it cost extra).
The other thing we didn’t do were the Tower Tours (it cost extra. Plus there were steps). This may have been a mistake as it is how you gain access to the upper walkways, bringing you nose to colourful window, and giving you the chance to see the fabulous space that is the cathedral from another angle.
Actually, perhaps with two under tens in tow that’s not such a good idea. You wouldn’t want centuries of craftsmanship to be destroyed by one enthusiastic bounce. The kids might suffer a bit from taking a header through the glass too.
Luckily, Ely Cathedral has other dedicated activities for its younger visitors. Mama tried to interest in us in the quiz, which encouraged us to contemplate key architectural details and their historical significance, but we quickly abandoned this for the sticker scavenger hunt. There is a map. There are locations marked on the map. There are locations marked on the map, which if you can find them, have stickers for you to collect and add to your compendium of interesting things to note about Ely Cathedral. We had a high old time galloping about what is quite an expansive site, and Mama got to take many many photographs in peace while we did so.
The only downside was that when we arrived at the relevant spot the stickers were not actually there. Mama was not entirely sure this was a down side though as it meant that we got twice as much exercise and some useful practice in polite interaction in English, as each time we failed to find our reward we trotted back to the helpdesk to collect it there. Although after this happened for the 200th time, the very obliging staff did just hand us over the whole set. After which we lost a bit of interest. It’s the hunt that’s the thing, you see. But they did then go round to top up the displays ready for the next underage visitor. You are very welcome.
Mama is welcome too. She lost her purse while in Ely Cathedral. It’s one of those things which marks you out is a tourist is losing key belongings while on a trip out. That and getting pickpocketed. Mama was quite shocked at the thought she might have been pickpocketed inside a religious institution in the UK, but almost as the thought crossed her mind she realised that she had probably just dropped it.
And thankfully for the reputation of respectable cathedral-going visitors in Britain, this was exactly the case and somebody had handed it in, so she got her purse back (if not her dignity) entirely intact.
After which we got back to admiring the building. One of the great attractions of Ely Cathedral, apart from the ceilings, the windows and the stickers, are plaques to the great and the good of Ely and the surrounding area stating their main purpose in life. Apart from dying, which seems a popular achievement to mention, there appear to have been a lot of Cambridge University professors in the area.
Occasionally, you get statues of people sleeping. Why sleeping, I do wonder. Is being good at snoring particularly impressive? Or something that the UK is particularly known for? I think we’d better book my Babushka a place right now because her penetrating buzz-saw whiffling is surely outstanding in its class.
On the other hand, I have no idea what talent this guy thinks he is showing off.
What Mama particularly liked about Ely Cathedral, however, was that it is clearly not just a carefully preserved monument to days gone by, but a working space.
Mama, in fact, spent a happy twenty minutes dragging my Long-suffering Big Brother, who has a much higher tolerance for being lectured at than I do, about the cathedral demonstrating the changing nature of Christian worship in the UK over the last five centuries or so.
Admire the craftsmanship and sheer effort of erecting this huge, gorgeous building in the middle of nowhere at a time when humanity was still constructing everything by hand.
Nothing was more important than God!
See the painstakingly ornate carvings, the colourful windows, the walls which would once have been covered in paint! And contemplate the impact that having a nice place to hang out in once a week and the prospect of a brighter future might have had on the Medieval mind.
Thrill as you recognise the moment when Catholicism gave way to Protestantism in the decision to preserve the figures in the Lady Chapel with their faces smashed off.
Note how the rood screen, with its symbolic and actual separation of the congregation from the place where the most important God veneration used to take place, is now ignored in favour of a nice plain altar on the side where the great unwashed sit.
Talking to God was a specialist job at one time. And people were assumed to need a bit of visual help in interpreting the stories. But now one is supposed to take a bit more responsibility for one’s own post-death safety. And be able to read.
Yet observe the moment that history comes full circle as the modern church decides that contemporary society demands that they try to convey the concept of the divine through the medium of interpretive art.
And of course, there is also the serious business of the flower arranging rota to enjoy. Mama says you couldn’t get any more Anglican unless there was quiche, stewed tea in a tea urn, a jumble sale and people bickering over who gets to babysit the vicar’s son.
And in fact there probably was quiche in the cafe near the entrance, although we opted for the generously sized portions of cake instead. No tea urn though, but then Mama does prefer coffee.
Basically, we enjoyed our trip round Ely Cathedral, which we completed on the same day as we visited Oliver Cromwell’s House Museum. Given that the two buildings are practically next door and all. Definitely a must see for anyone visiting Ely. It’s big, it’s relatively empty, it’s full of welcoming well-meaning people, it’s got lots of interesting things to look at and there are refreshments. What’s not to like?
Opening: 7am – 6.30 pm, although the best time to visit is 9am – 5pm Monday to Saturday. Bear in mind that if there is a service going on then access will be restricted. There’s a page on the website where you can check potential closures out.
Admission: 8 GBP for adults with 6 GBP concessions. Kids under 16 are free. It’s 15 (or 13) GBP to add the Tower Tour, and 12 (9) GBP to visit the Stained Glass Museum and the cathedral together. To do it all and get a free cup of tea is 18 (15.50) GBP. People who live in or go to church in the area can get a free pass.
Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no dedicated parking for the cathedral, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.
Ely also has rail connections to Stanstead Airport, Kings Cross London, Birmingham, Norwich and Peterborough. The station is 10 minutes away from the cathedral.
Mama has this vague idea in her head that fossil collecting is a very British and specifically Victorian thing to do, reinforced by her visits to the Natural History Museum in London. Its feverishly over-imagined Gothic vibe is, she says, about as Victorian as it is possible to get without actually getting unnecessarily worked up when somebody shows a bit of ankle.
So the Orlov Paleontology Museum in Moscow came as a bit of a shock. It’s very big. It’s full of bones. Could it be that Russia has, perhaps, MORE dinosaur bits than Mama’s motherland?
UPDATE: We revisited this museum recently after our first visit in 2015 and, shockingly, there are STILL an unreasonably large number of dinosaur skeletons there! Couple of new pictures for you though and a surprise revelation at the end.
Of course, Russia is relatively large areawise. Mama’s personal moment of horrified realisation of that, since we are sharing this sort of embarrassing revelation already, came when she was watching the weather forecast one day.
Did you know it takes three maps to sketch out the vaguest overview of this sprawling landmass, with each point identified representing distances which would take you from at least London to Edinburgh in a properly proportioned country? Mama had to lie down in a dark room for some considerable time after cogitating too carefully on that. Russia is the sort of size that triggers Mama’s latent agoraphobia.
It’s probably best not to tell her about the nine time zones and how long it takes to chug along over to Lake Baikal on the Trans Siberian Express (six days. SIX DAYS! And that’s not even end to end of the country by any means.
Oh dear. Mama is off having another little lie down).
Anyway. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that Russia, a country which we can probably agree, withoutgoingintotoomuchdetail, is big, has managed to scavenge quite a few bits and pieces of fossilised ancient lizard and prehistoric mammal. But quite clearly it did. To Mama.
Not an unpleasant surprise, of course! Who doesn’t like wandering around looking at giant sloth skeletons, giant tapir skeletons, a giant diplodocus skeleton, small but vicious-looking velociraptors, a huge mammoth, a small mammoth, many mammoth trophy heads on the wall and a few more tusks scattered artfully around, big birds, no bigger than that, and various squat shapes which all looked as though they were getting ready to charge at us through the glass. Also in skeleton form.
Now Mama would not be prepared to swear that absolutely every single one of those bones is original. Much reconstruction with plastercasts has almost certainly happened, but it has happened well and is most impressive all the same to small people who can spend hours leafing through the monster books and spew long strings of what Mama thinks are unpronounceable syllables in two languages in delighted recognition.
Which may be why the Paleontology Museum in Moscow leans towards the old skool when it comes to interactive features. In that there aren’t any. Mama thinks this is a bit of a shame and that the Paleontology Museum should go and look at the Darwin Museum to see just how much more fabulousness is waiting to be unlocked without needing a radical upgrade. More stuff to touch and move around and something that fills the air with roars is my recommendation.
That way you won’t have the unfortunate incident that we nearly had when we came across the many thousand year old rock covered with cave paintings. While Mama was transfixed by the UTTER COOLNESS of the exhibit, I was attracted by the shiny smoothness and reached out a hand and…
Let’s hope that one is one of the reproductions, eh? The Paleontology Museum is quite clearly a firm favourite with the children of Moscow and their parents and I can’t imagine I am the only small person who has had their tactile limits tested by the time they get to this, one of the last items on display.
That said, if you are Mama’s advanced age and bored by bones, the Paleontology Museum in Moscow is still worth a visit for the art. Every room has enhancements in the form of monstrous mosaics, murals, enamelled installations and suchlike.
With the tone being set by the terribly lizardy wrought iron gates at the entrance.
Look out also for the pterodactyl shaped doorhandles and the similarly Jurassic window coverings!
But our favourite was the courtyard overlooked by many of the rooms of the museum. Giant dinosaur sculptures and similar! I’ll just say that again. Giant! Dinosaur! Sculptures! And Similar! Looking a bit the worse for wear, admittedly, but if the people out there with the tape measures and enthusiastically waved hands are anything to go by, they may well be in tip top condition and ready for lounging amongst when we go in the summer. UPDATE: Nope. Still just a courtyard full of giant dinosaur sculptures and similar. I say just…
Preferably with coffee. Says Mama. I’d go for ice cream myself. Unfortunately, the Paleontology Museum does not provide such things on its territory, or at least it didn’t when we went in the autumn. This is a bit of a shame as it’s quite a slog down a multi lane highway from the Metro, where all the food options are – at least TEN MINUTES brisk march. And that’s if you aren’t burdened by a small complaining bundle, which Mama was on the way back as I was coming down with something and had only been sustained round Moscow’s Paleontology Museum by my feverish interest in all things large and scaly, and barely that by the end of the five hundredth room.
There is a toy kisok though. In fact there are TWO, and this is, of course, far FAR more important than mere bodily refreshment. The entrance price is extremely reasonable, and thus Mama was inclined to reward the Paleontology Museum by spending money in its shops. UPDATE: Scored two make your own dinosaur kits this time round. The kiosks are still there, and still fabulous, the cafe is still non-existent.
Yes, it’s that good. Go. Bring your own snacks, a sense of wonderment and either a smartphone someone to translate the Russian explanatory placards if awed gawping alone isn’t good enough for you. Because UPDATE Mama discovered on a recent visit that you can download a free app and listen for either an audio tour or read about the Orlov Paleontology Museum’s collections IN ENGLISH! Not that she got a chance to do stand around idly listening to people talk in her ear with us there. But nice to know the option exists.
Opening: Wednesday through Sunday 10am to 6pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Admission: Adults: 300 roubles (£3). Over 7s: 150 roubles (£1.50). No need to buy a photography ticket here – that’s included.
By Metro: You can either get off at Tyopliy Stan or Konkovo on the orange line. The website has a particularly helpful pictorial guide of how to get to the Paleontology Museum from both stations, but basically it’s a trek along the multi lane highway that is Profsoyuznaya Ulitsa and there you are you are.
There were quite a lot of people about when the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Iron Felix, was torn down in 1991.
Dzerzhinsky was the man who set up the CHEKA, the forerunner of the KGB, and he was notorious. Consolidating the Revolution required the arrest and immediate execution without trial hundreds of thousands of potential threats to the imminent Communist paradise, and Felix was tireless in pursuing this most necessary work.
Not surprising, then, that after he died, from a heart attack following close on the impassioned denunciation of some of his rivals, he got a giant statue. A giant statue slap bang in front of the KGB headquarters in Moscow.
Not surprising, too, that this statue was one of the focal points of the pent up rage of the suddenly released Soviet population after the fall of Communism. It was first covered in graffiti, and then removed and dumped elsewhere. There is a monument to those who died in the Gulags there now, although it’s not half as big.
There were a lot fewer people to see Felix Dzerzhinsky put back on his feet again a few years later, but my Papa was one of them. If you ever unearth a picture of the historic moment, you will see a short man with a dandelion clock of floaty hair, and that will be him. Mama says. I dunno. He doesn’t seem to have much hair now. I suppose anything was possible in the 90s.
A number of monuments to fallen heroes had been collected here, and were being put back on display. Stalin, his nose bashed off, was erected, rather pointedly, in the midst of tortured, anguished forms, an installation to memorialise the victims of repression and terror.
But as for the rest, Carl Marx, Leonid Brezhnev, a number of Lenins, a giant hammer and sickle, some generals, a female worker and so on, were just dotted about here and there.
And were soon joined by statues to perfectly innocuous people like circus bears…
…and a bare-bottomed youth standing on his shoulders.
There’s even an Oriental section.
And a whole square devoted to sculptures made from limestone.
It’s all a bit random to be honest.
Especially the great big fuck off Peter the Great statue down by the Moscow River.
But thus the sculpture park Muzeon came into existence and these days it is a rather trendy hangout.
You can wander around the statues, especially Felix, who is looking quite smart and has had his graffiti quite removed.
You can admire the red squirrels Mama suspects have been specially bred to entertain visitors at Muzeon and Gorky Park.
You can get coffee or some snacks from the plentiful little kiosks. You can even stroll down the river along the newly opened up embankment towards the Kremlin.
Nobody pays much attention to the statues to the dethroned Communist butchers. There’s no egg hurling, spitting, vigils, flags, respraying or chipping bits off now. Although you do sometimes find children wanting to climb on them (cough cough). And someone does seem to have left flowers at the feet of the defaced Stalin. Mama does very much hope this was in support of the 3 million people killed in the Gulags and the larger number killed by state-induced famine, but in 2017 it’s never wise to assume that sort of thing.
Of course, if you are foreign like Mama, you will almost certainly be taking photos. One person’s symbol of oppression overcome is another person’s edgy selfie opportunity, after all.
So what has caused this feeling of creeping irrelevance? Time has passed, and times are different since the heady early days of post-Communist living. The promised land of milk, honey and wall to wall freeeeedom and the Russian way has not quite worked out as expected.
Or it might have something to do with the fact that Moscow today is hardly free from Communist busts, flags, hammer and sickles, and statues. The impact of gathering the statues of the unwanted in one place so people can come and point and laugh is somewhat lost when there’s a huge Lenin at the end of the road, arm outflung as if to show the way to Muzeon (or the road to Communist enlightenment, you take your pick).
This might be why almost from the moment that Papa wandered over on his tea break to see what all the unusual commotion with cranes was about, there have been noises about putting Dzerzhinsky back on his roundabout again. Was there any point to taking him down, the thinking presumably goes? Or possibly, do we really want to encourage more such acts of childish petulance aimed at our (former) glorious leaders?
Hasn’t happened yet, mind you, but anything’s possible.
Mama thinks this would be a mistake though. Just as every memorial ever put up says a lot more about the people and times that spawned them than it ever does about the person (or abstract concept) being remembered, so does the act of removing them.
The fallen monument section of the sculpture park in Muzeon is a reminder that the values our predecessors held definitely need critically reexamining sometimes, but you can never, and probably should never, ignore them.
And it helps us remember that sometimes the best you can hope for is that there will be some relatively blameless child able to eat ice cream and enjoy the sunshine in pleasant surroundings in the future.
Address: 10/4, Ulitsa Krymskiy Val at New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 119049
Opening: 8am to 10pm (winter) or 11pm (summer).
Getting there: From Oktabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left away from the giant Lenin statue down the other massive seven million lane highway. From Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. Muzeon is opposite Gorky Park.
Alternatively, the trolleybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from Muzeon.
It was a day trip. Ah! I see you thinking. Scottish. I see you thinking. Zoo. I see you thinking. Off you popped to Edinburgh then! But there you would be wrong.
In fact, we went across to Ireland to Belfast Zoo on Stenaline ferries. Because Stenaline have a summertime offer which includes ferry tickets, zoo tickets, and a bus transfer between the two, which still works out cheaper than trying to see captive animals in Scotland’s capital.
And because the drive down to catch the ferry is somewhat more pleasant than dragging along the motorway and crawling through bits of two cities.
Plus, we got to go to Gran and Grandpa’s house because it’s on the way to Cairnryan! That’s where we catch the boat. Convenient, huh?
Everybody was very busy making lots of sandwiches and other yummy things to eat on the journey when we arrived. Preparations!
You remember my little brother L right? He approves of preparations too.
Although they do take a while. After waiting aaaaageeees (maybe even as much as a whole night) for everyone to get everything ready, we got in the car again. We drove and drove, then had to find the car somewhere to sleep. And then we had to wait for everyone else to come in the other car. Again with the waiting!
At least we got to have some snacks.
“my teddy bea crimps”
Yes L, we had crisps. The preparations were worth it!
Of course, after that we still had to walk a reeaaalllly looong way to get on the ferry (five minutes). Which is a really really big boat and cars and trucks can go on too. From my point of view, this is less interesting, though, than the fact that there’s a cinema and soft play, and there are also restaurants and even a spa (whatever that is) on board. The walk was worth it too!
Mummy said we were on the boat for over two hours.
But that’s not really very long as by the time we had had lunch and played in the little soft play area and explored the boat and run about for a bit more it was almost time to get back off again, and we hardly noticed this bit!
Then we had to go across aaanooootheeer big long bridge to get to the bus (ten minutes)!
I liked the bus though; it took us to Belfast Zoo!
When we got to the zoo we looked at lots and lots and lots of animals. There’s everything there! I really liked the big giraffes, and there were some baby giraffes too!
And big elephants!
“I seed a goats, dey was hungy”
Yep, there were goats and pigs and donkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs at the farm area, there were also LOTS of different kinds of monkeys. From huge big gorillas to capuchins and a wild variety of other things like lemurs and tamarind too.
And! There were brown bears, otters, sea lions, oh, and penguins!
We couldn’t see the tigers (they were doing very good hiding) but we did see a mummy lion!
And we also saw meerkats, prairie dogs, and flamingos too!
Belfast Zoo has all the animals, in fact, you could possibly ask for. I bet even Herself and Herself’s animal obsessed big brother would be impressed!
Of course, we had to do more walking to see all the animals. And the zoo is on a big hill so we didn’t quite get round all the animals in the three hours we had before we had to get back on the bus. It was still huge fun though. And we got to play on the ferry again on the way back, we even had dinner in the restaurant!
That’s what I call a day out!
It was so good that when Mummy and Daddy got us back in the car, L was already asleep, and I fell asleep on the way back to Gran and Grandpa’s house.
So if you live close enough to Cairnryan to take advantage, Stenaline ferries have day out offers to convenient bits of Ireland throughout the year, although this specific one to Belfast Zoo has already finished. Still, I imagine there are people actually living or staying close enough to Belfast who might be interested in a zoo experience too, so my advice is go!
Opening: Winter opening: 10am to 4pm daily Summer opening is longer.
Admission: Families – 33.50GBP, adults – 17GBP, kids over four – 6.50GBP, kids under four – free! Plus, the aforementioned deal with Stenaline ferries, which
Getting there: Obviously we recommend being in Scotland and going across to Ireland via Cainryan with Stenaline. If this is not convenient for some reason, you can get to Belfast Zoo via the M1 or M2 motorways depending on which direction you are approaching Belfast from. There is, the zoo’s website assures me, plenty of free parking. The nearest train station (Whiteabbey) is three miles away. There are numerous buses from Belfast city centre.
So one day British musician and music producer Stephen Coates was walking through a flea market in St Petersburg, Russia (as you do) when he spotted something which looked a lot like this.
Intrigued, he stopped and asked the seller about it, but didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. Coates bought the thin plastic disk anyway, discovered it did in fact play music, and then set about trying to find out more.
This was, apparently, a bit difficult at first.
Of course, had Coates asked Mama, he could quickly have found out what he had acquired. This is because Mama long ago readBack in the USSR: the true story of rock in Russia, about the underground rock scene in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
This book, published in the very late 80s, was written by Atemy Troitsky. Who was very much in the thick of it all as a producer, musician, critic and organiser of some of the Soviet Union’s first rock festivals.
Troitsky is mostly concerned with the scene in the late 70s and 80s, but he includes as a sort of prequel a whole chapter on the clandestine music lovers who came before. These were the stilyagi, or hipsters, who went to extraordinary lengths to simulate the Western lifestyle of rock and roll fans in the late 40s and 50s, up to and including listening to bootleg records made out of old X-rays.
One of which, of course, is what Stephen Coates had got his hands on.
Mama is smug that she knew about this before it was cool. But then on the other hand, Mama did not start a whole organisation called X-Ray Audio dedicated to preserving the records and researching the phenomenon by meeting and interviewing some of the participants like Stephen Coates did. And now there is a whole exhibition, Bone Music, at the contemporary art gallery, Garage, dedicated to these fabulous objects.
Mind you, not that the ryebra, or ribs, were just about passing round Western rock and roll or jazz music, acceptable during the war, summarily banned afterwards. Also frowned upon by the post-war censors was music by Russian emigrees, 50s gangsta rap-esque prison ballads, and songs by any individuals who had pissed off the Communist party or one of its more influential members.
Why X-rays, you might be wondering. Well, they were reasonably easily obtainable – hospitals had to get rid of them after a certain amount of time because of the fire risk they represented – and took the grooves cut by improvised recording equipment well enough, if not particularly well, to be able to hear the desired tunes. Alongside a lot of hissing and crackling.
So the Bone Music exhibition is not just celebrating the roentgenizdat, but the people who made them and the machines they built to do it. People who were arrested, sent to the gulags, came out, and settled down to do it all over again.
And you never thought Rock around the Clock was all that.
But also on display at Bone Music was the way that people who might want to listen to such things were portrayed in the press, or even in films. Negatively, as I am sure you can imagine.
Yes, much of the text in the exhibition is in English as well as Russian. But then the Garage art gallery is very hip.
Our favourite bit of the whole Bone Music exhibition was the room set up to simulate a bootlegger’s lair. The reason? Everything in the room was touchable. All those little drawers had bits and pieces in. Tattered ID documents, valves, more valves, bits of string, technical drawings, some wire, valves, stamps, a tin of old kopecks, and valves. We opened the tea caddy and smelled the leaves inside. We handled the freshly produced X-ray records. We looked though the old exercise books of carefully handwritten catalogues. Hours of fun.
Bone Music is on at Garage until 14th October, but if you don’t catch it before then, the X-Ray Audio project goes on tour internationally quite often. See if you can check it out when it comes to you, because the sheer ingenuity of people generally, and the indomitable spirit of those suppressedshould be celebrated.
And then there’s music. You should definitely remember the days it didn’t die.
To help you, here is Stephen Coates doing a TED talk about Bone Music and his X-Ray Audio project.