Discovering Russia

Having been shrouded in mystery for far too long, the Russians are now keen to emerge as an affable and hospitable nation

Discovering Russia


 

In this scribe’s formative years, Kremlin, Red Square and Leningrad were shrouded in mystery. Owing to the Iron Curtain, visiting these places was out of question.  Finally, an invitation to attend the VI Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) provided the perfect opportunity to visit these places.

MCIS addresses the most pressing problems of global and regional security. This year it was organised in the backdrop of the ensuing conflict in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan.

The plenary session was on the fight against terrorism, security issues in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, and the role of militaries in enhancing global security. Counterterrorism and counter radicalism in the Middle East, security of cyber space, BMD implications, and security in Central Asia were discussed separately.

The organisers had taken pains to not only make the participants comfortable but also ensure that the burning issues were discussed in the most professional manner. Ministers of Defence from 29 countries led their respective delegations along with senior military personnel and security analysts. This scribe was afforded the chance to express his opinion in the session on Security in Central Asia: Afghan factor.

On the day of the arrival, Anatoly I. Antonov, Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation, hosted a welcome cocktail, while Pakistan’s Ambassador to Moscow welcomed the Pakistani delegation to a dinner.

The conference was a roaring success. At the end of day 1, General Sergey Shoygu, Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation, hosted a reception. Besides serving sumptuous Russian cuisine, the host arranged music and traditional dance performances by cultural troupes from the Russian Army, Navy and Air Force. At the conclusion of the symposium, the grand finale was a three-and-a-half hour boat cruise on the River Moskva. Throughout the boat cruise, theriver was kept clear of other traffic to ensure safety of guests.

Having stayed on for sightseeing, visits to Kremlin, Red Square and the Bolshoi Theatre occupied me for three days. I had some idea about Kremlin from glimpses of the place caught in movies, but I was certainly not prepared for the grandeur that greeted me when I stepped inside. Walled Kremlin is an array of museums, cathedrals and palaces. The place has been razed by various invaders but like a phoenix rising out of ashes, it has managed to regain its splendour. The Bolshevik revolution and the two world wars have left their marks but failed to subdue the magnificence of this ancient capital.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the two World Wars have left their marks but they have failed to subdue Kremlin’s magnificence

Even when Peter the Great moved the capital to St Petersburg, Russia’s rulers continued to leave their mark on the medieval town. Peter himself built the Kremlin Arsenal, originally planned as a military museum and now occupied by a barracks. The 18th and 19th centuries brought neoclassical masterpieces such as the Senate Building and the Great Kremlin Palace. After the 1917 Revolution, the Kremlin regained its rightful place as the seat of the Russian government, and the legacy of the Communist era is still visible in the large red stars that adorn many of the defensive towers, and in the vast, modern State Kremlin Palace, originally the Palace of Congresses.

Lying at the very centre of the Kremlin, the Sobornaya or Cathedral Squareserves as a junction where all main streets of the Kremlin meet. The square’s name relates to the great cathedrals that stand here - Blagoveshchensky Sobor (The Cathedral of the Annunciation), Uspensky Sobor (The Cathedral of The Assumption), and Arkhangelsky Sobor (The Cathedral of The Archangel), as well as the Church of the Twelve Apostles, and the Church of the Deposition of the Robe. This was once the stage for official parades to mark the coronations of the Tsars, and also of massed religious processions on great church holidays. On the Red Steps of the Faceted Chamber, the sovereigns of Russia would appear before their people, and in front of these steps foreign ambassadors were traditionally welcomed to the city.

Ivanovskaya Square got its name from the magnificent pillar of Ivan. This, the biggest of all the Kremlin’s squares, was a hive of activity over three centuries ago.

Red Square, lying just outside the balustrades of the Kremlin, gave a festive look since preparations were afoot to host the massive and grand Victory Day Parade on May 9.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral is perhaps the most well-known face of Moscow. It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to mark the 1552 capture of Kazan from Mongol forces. It was completed in 1560. According to a dubious legend, its builders, Barma and Postnik Yakovlev, were blinded by Ivan so that they could not create anything to compare.

Watching an opera at the Bolshoi Theatre was a real treat.

Saint Petersburg is also a city steeped in history and royal beauty. The cultural capital of Russia was founded by Tsar Peter the Great on May 27, 1703. It has changed names from Petrograd to Leningrad, and now back to Saint Petersburg.

Every building apart from the modern constructions has a historical value. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, Church of the Saviour on Blood, Peter and Paul Fortresses and the Winter Palace are some of the major attractions. The Winter Palace, now known as the Hermitage, is one of the largest art museums in the world. Its collections boasts masterpieces made by most internationally acclaimed artists. The experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, you would need 11 years before you’d seen them all. Having visited the Louvre or the Versailles Palace in France or the MET in New York, Hermitage was a pleasant surprise.

For far too long, having been shrouded in mystery behind the Iron Curtain, the Russians are now keen to emerge as an affable and hospitable nation, which boasts of millennia of history and is definitely worth visiting.  

 

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF. He is a columnist, analyst and TV Talk show host, who has authored six books on current affairs, including three on China