Stepping out of the Metro, we are greeted by a white wind. My glasses are instantly caked in snow; I sweep a glove across them and look toward the Historical Museum through beads of crushed snowflake. The museum, just 50 meters away, is a gray rumor in the storm, a thing that may or may not actually be there. We pass through the Resurrection Gates, my wife and my son and I. At the far end of the square—the jagged, dreamy vastness of St. Basil’s, drained of its riotous color, a silvery shadow. Another gust and it disappears altogether. We’ve come here to ice skate.
It is Christmas morning. In the evenings, Moscow is lit up like the center of the Milky Way, a festival around every corner—a Gnome City, complete with a Gnome Embassy; an igloo filled with columns of light that respond to the touch of a hand. But that is the night; this is the morning, the sleepy northern morning, when the gnomes are silent and a softer light reigns.
We are, it seems, almost alone on Red Square. At the cashier next to the skating rink, we see the sign: “Closed for technical reasons.” That means that, technically, the rink is under a half-meter of snow. We walk along its perimeter. Laughter—not ours, though we do find the morning funny. A young man and woman in red parkas are shoveling snow over the edge of the rink, hooting at the futility of their work. They begin to toss the snow at each other.
I know this place, I have friends in this city, I have been here many times. But today it is new to me, and I am at the mercy of its beauty. St. Basil’s has inspired me since I first saw its image projected onto the snowy screen of Mrs. Schneider’s third-grade classroom at Las Vegas’ Lewis E. Rowe Elementary School. Who puts that much color on a building? Was this what the world looked like before buildings turned into boxes and the centuries resigned themselves to being merely useful? For thirty-something years I thought the color of St. Basil’s was essential to its daydream majesty. Now, nearly blizzard-blind, I see that it’s even better in black and white. The familiar becomes unfamiliar; the land is new; I walk like a novice toward the frontier.
A three-man choir is singing inside. A few Chinese tourists are taking a guided tour. We are a brave brotherhood, the ones who entered the storm this fine morning and came to the square: There are the singers, the snow-shovelers, the Chinese tourists, the stalwart guide, and us. In English diction last heard direct from the mouth of Jane Austen, the guide tells the Chinese tourists that each of the cathedral’s 10 cupolas is unique, with its own design both inside and out. We are tagging along. A Chinese man turns to us: “This is a private tour,” he says. We walk away, through a low, dark passage. In a room to our right: a gold-leaf icon of Madonna and Child. We walk toward the singing. The music rises, dances upon the masonry, plays in each mortared crevice, undresses the soul and sends it up into the wind. When the singing ends, we approach the trio’s leader. Somehow, I wind up telling him that I am from the States.
“What do you think of Moscow?” he asks.
“I love Moscow.”
“I wish all of you over there felt that way.”
The sentence strikes like a deep D-minor in the middle of “Ode to Joy.” Which is to say, painful and discordant but endlessly interesting. I want to say that, outside the precincts of the congenitally angry, there is virtually no ill will in our country toward Russia. Concern, yes. Angst about the intentions of Vladimir Putin, certainly. But no ill will toward the people, the culture, the nation. I say none of this. Even in this holiest of places, you cannot argue with what has been said on Channel One, and on Channel One it has been said that we Americans are bent on destroying Russia. The myth of our ill will makes it easier to uphold the countermyth that the strong hand of Putin’s state must grow ever stronger in order to ensure the nation’s survival.
None of this analysis will mean anything to the singer, who wants only to sing, to know that his culture and his people are safe from my culture and my people, and to hope that there are others out there who, like me, love Moscow. I thank him for his music.
“Put in a good word for us over there,” he says.
For him, I will.
Greg Blake Miller, Ph.D., is the director of Olympian Creative Education.